Home on hilly Sonoma site wins national landscaping award

Marion Brenner / Roche + Roche Landscape Architecture The home on a hillside above the Sonoma Valley has a gravel terrace with gas fire pit utilizing existing volcanic rock as a backdrop overlooking a bocce court and vineyards.


It sits on a steep, wooded hillside, 17 rugged acres perched above the city of Sonoma.

It is a beautiful, yet difficult property, with volcanic rock fields and thick stands of oak trees. It deserved a light touch when it came to taming the landscape for human use.

Sonoma landscape architects David and Nancy Roche took on the design challenge, finely sculpting out a space that was both contemporary, natural and easily accessible for the owners, a couple from The Peninsula retiring to Sonoma.

“There are a number of wonderful properties up there that as the crow flies are very close to town but have these fantastic views, either over the town of Sonoma or over to San Francisco,” said David Roche, explaining the appeal of a quiet retreat that is only a few minutes drive down to the shops and restaurants around the Sonoma Plaza.

The problem with this particular property was that the best views were not easily accessible.

“There had been an existing residence on the property when the current owners bought it,” Roche said. “But it was set into one of the lower parts of the site. It had no views. It was a house in the woods.”

One had to hike a steep 15 or 20 feet to the top of a knoll to discover this property’s secret asset — views not only over the Sonoma Valley, but stretching far south to San Francisco, the San Pablo Bay and on a clear day, Mt. Diablo in the east bay.

When the Roches first met with the homeowners and asked to walk to the top of the knoll, they were told, “That’s no place we’d go. It was all weeds and snakes and rocks.”

“But Nancy and I wanted to see it. We all traipsed up there,” said Roche.

“You look out over this rolling hill of vineyards, another wooded hill and more hills in the distance. It’s this phenomenal layered view like you would see in a Chinese scroll landscaping painting,” he added.

The Roches managed to convince their initially skeptical clients that something could be done to capitalize on that million-dollar view. What they created was a gravel terrace with a custom gas fire pit, taking advantage of a dramatic volcanic rock backdrop in a setting with weathered and lichen-covered rocks. The owners now say it is now one of their favorite spots on the property, particularly for relaxing in the evening. It overlooks a bocce court with vineyard views, laid into a gap in the native rock outcroppings. Nancy Roche, who specializes in plant selection, picked a silvery blue and green color palette to catch the moonlight.

“We give them credit for saying, ‘We’re not sure, but keeping moving forward and we’ll see if we can wrap our heads around it,’” Roche said of his clients who at first were dubious.

But that’s what a designer does — helps a client see possibilities they never considered.

The project, completed last year, recently received an Honor Award by the American Society of Landscape Architects. It was one of 38 projects singled out for special recognition from among 464 entries from all over the United States.

Of the nine projects receiving awards in the residential category, four were from the design-forward San Francisco Bay Area. The top award of Excellence went to Andrea Cochran, a landscape architect from San Francisco, who is known locally for her design of Stone Edge Farm in Sonoma. Cochran also won an Honor Award for a residential landscape on Telegraph Hill.

David and Nancy Roche established Roche + Roche Landscape Architecture in 2005 and have applied their design aesthetic to wineries, tasting rooms and residences throughout Wine Country. They just completed the first phase of a major renovation on Timber Cove Resort on the north Sonoma coast.

The ASLA also honored the Roches two years ago for their landscape design of Sweetwater Spectrum, an innovative residential community in Sonoma for adults with autism.

The Washington, D.C. organization oversees licensing requirements for states like California that require a license to use the professional title “landscape architect,” as opposed to someone who is a landscape designer or installer. Architects must have a degree from an accredited program, serve an apprenticeship with a licensed landscape architect, pass a state exam and meet other requirements.

The Roches worked closely with building architect Cahill Studio Sonoma, and contractor Landers Curry Inc., stepping the buildings, parking, terraces and other outdoor living spaces.

On the lowest level is a guest house, game room and small lawn for games, tucked among the trees just below The Car Barn, which can be emptied of vehicles and opened to double as entertainment space. The main living area of the house is on the second floor, with everything easily accessible to the pool and outdoor kitchen on the same level. A sliding glass wall opens up, creating an unbroken space from the indoors to the outdoors.

The Roches designed a set of three rectangular column fountains at the entrance set in a bed of Epimedium ‘Frihnleiten’ and Juncus ‘Carmen’s Grey,’ along with varieties of Woodwardia and Vibernum. The architects initially made all three pillars the same size but the clients asked to cast them in staggered heights, representing the different heights of their three grown children.

The entire team was mindful of both reflecting and respecting the hillside environment. The Roches created arbors of woven willow panels to provide filtered shape in the outdoor living room and kitchen around the pool. When designing a pathway, the Roches paid respect to a mature oak, leaving it in the direct pathway.

“You engage with nature that way,” Roche explained.

“The driving principle for us in designing this project is similar to what are in many of our projects,” he said. “We try to read the site to find the opportunities to open up views, or take advantage of naturally shaded areas of beautiful trees and outcroppings. I think the reason it appealed to the judges is that even thought it is a steep site, we created usable areas without having to do a lot of grading or earth moving.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204.