Manok Cohen, walks through the first floor of her three story live/work space she shares with her husband Alan Cohen in downtown Healdsburg.

Healdsburg couple live, work, thrive

If you're driving down Healdsburg's Center Street in search of the Cohen residence, you're apt to drive right past it.

If you're driving down Center street in search of Alan Cohen's architectural offices, you're also bound to zip right by.

And yet Cohen inhabits one of the more distinctive structures in town — three singular structures of different heights, materials and colors, each with a different designated purpose, but all connected by doors, stairs and even an enclosed catwalk.

It's a striking three-level urban home, a two-story professional office and an artist's studio above a garage and workshop, enclosing a secret courtyard patio. It's both ultra contemporary and old school, an eco-friendly and solar-powered collection of connected structures packing multiple uses into 4,000 square feet. It's all efficiently arranged vertically onto a slim, 3,750 square foot lot, one of the smaller sites in downtown Healdsburg.

Cohen and his wife Manok Cohen, an artist, comfortably live and work here in this home and office that really looks like neither. It's a dual-use design he came up with three years ago to satisfy his yen to consume less energy while enjoying the perks of living in the heart of downtown.

"People are a little confused," he allows. But that is not without intent. "There's always headprint and handprints on the glass in the front door."

Cohen was living on a large parcel he had purchased and subdivided on Fitch Mountain when the inspiration hit him. A proponent of sustainable design ever since he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, he decided to finally take his green ethos to the next level. That meant not only creating a dwelling that was efficient in both energy use and use of space, but that would allow him to work at home and get off the highway after commuting to Santa Rosa for years.

"Boy, what a great move," he declares, easing back in his great room with a cup of verbena tea steeped from leaves Manok minutes earlier clipped from the courtyard garden just beyond a set of clear patio doors.

"Both of us love living here. The reason are obvious. We can walk to Barndiva (a popular restaurant and lounge a few doors down) and, more importantly, walk home," he grins. "We walk to the movies all the time. We walk everywhere in town. It's so nice to not have to use your car and not to have to wait in traffic."

When he needs to photocopy his blueprints he simply hops on his bicycle and pedals a few blocks just beyond the plaza. A recently retired member of the planning commission, he routinely cycled to City Hall. He says his combined energy consumption from home and office — including gas — has plunged to just 17 percent of what he was paying before while living on the mountain east of town and commuting to Santa Rosa.

But perhaps the greater and less easily quantified gift is the gift of time. While some might hesitate at the thought of living so close to the office, however convenient, Cohen says work doesn't encroach on his down time. Cutting out the highway 101 drive two times a day has given him more hours to work and relax.

"Here's the commute," he laughs and, opening a door, steps from his third-floor bedroom. On the other side is a radically different space — an urban architectural office on two floors with plate-glass doors opening out to the street. From either space, you'd never imagine the completely different world that lies just beyond the door.

"There is plenty of time to get work done during the day," he says. "Rather than getting in there earlier, I'm in there a little later than I used to."

He even has 20 minutes for a catnap in the afternoon, sometimes on the outdoor canopied bed on his rooftop patio.

Design-wise Cohen has delineated each opposing space on the property with radically different materials.

Facing the street is his architectural studio, a flat-roofed, 1,050 square-foot space he shares with associate Tor Olsen. Sheathed in brick, it evokes old commercial buildings of the 19th century.

The brick, he says, "connotes strength and stability," something you want to convey with a business.

But inside it is updated industrial, with open web steel joists and exposed sprinkler pipes and conduits.

It looks like it could be a freestanding building, but is connected in back to a different looking residential structure. The house has a sloping shed roof and what looks like wood board siding painted a rich, old-fashioned barn red. The material, however, is not wood but Hardipanel, a durable cement and wood-fiber material. A big part of sustainable building is using materials that will last a long time, he said, thus saving on the transportation and energy associated with more frequent replacement.

The garage, which has a second-story artist studio and also houses a shop where he makes his own architectural renderings and frames for Manok's paintings, is corrugated steel, telegraphing a more workaday utility. But it's gentrified with awnings that also function to cut down on interior heat. An enclosed walkway between the house and the garage makes the space easily accessible while also creating a dividing line between home and work for Manok. In keeping with the efficient use of space, Cohen turned it into a handy laundry room.

He maximized the living area on the tight lot by building up, three stories with an open ventilation "chimney" in the middle that gives a feeling of spaciousness while also bringing in light and serving a practical function of drawing up hot air and redistributing, via industrial size fans, the cool air that comes in through strategic windows at night.

It stands about 47 feet at its highest point, still well within the downtown's 50-foot structural height limit.

The downstairs is an open kitchen, dining and living area, with stained concrete floors and slate backsplashes. Douglas fir cabinets serve to soften and warm up the harder surfaces. The pantry is tucked under the stairs.

Wide patio doors leading out to the courtyard give a feeling of spaciousness. The outdoor area, with a cooking fireplace and fountain, is so protected by the buildings as well as a high, concrete block and stucco wall on one side that the windows can be left open without curtains and there is no loss of privacy.

The second floor is a mezzanine with an office/desk zone and access to the garage studio. The third floor is a bedroom and bathroom that offer nice views of the rooftops of Healdsburg and the countryside beyond.

Being in the center of town is really not so far from the country after all.

"It's amazing when you get up in the air," he says from his third floor aerie, "and you look around at downtown Healdsburg and see just how green it is."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.

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