2 prize-winning examples of Sonoma County’s best home architecture

They sit on opposite ends of Sonoma County — one literally straddling the border with Marin County and the other a few miles south of the Mendocino County line on the far north coast. But both are singularly Sonoma in vernacular and represent some of the best in new residential architecture north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

One is called Owl House and is set snugly in a hillside bowl, with views of west Marin and Sonoma counties. The other sits on a meadow in the historic southern part of Sea Ranch. Both are contemporary, highly sensitive to their placement within the natural setting, and both were singled out for top honors at the recent Redwood Empire chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The awards, held every two years, recognize outstanding design work either submitted by one of the chapter’s 158 members or by an outside architect with a project within the chapter’s sphere, an area once popularly called “The Redwood Empire.” It includes Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt, Del Norte, Siskiyou, Modoc and Trinity counties.

Fifteen projects — residential, commercial and public use, built and unbuilt — received awards at ceremonies last month. Some winners replaced structures lost in the wildfires of 2017, marking a changing Wine Country landscape in the wake of so much devastation.

Only the Owl House by MAD Architecture of Petaluma, the Sea Ranch Meadow II by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop of Berkeley and a small spa and retreat in a vineyard setting in Napa Valley by Signum Architecture of St. Helena received the highest Honor Awards.

But judges recognized a number of other projects with Merit awards, the second-highest honor. They included Cardinal Newman High School’s new science classroom building designed by Quattrocchi Kwok Architects of Santa Rosa, a six-story eco-friendly parking garage in Palo Alto designed by RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture of Sonoma and a Nuns Canyon Fire home rebuild in the Sonoma Valley by Mork Ulnes Architects of San Francisco.

Merit awards also went to Weddle Gilmore Architects of Scottsdale, Arizona, for their renovation of the old Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa; V and BAR Architects + Interiors of San Francisco for the new Fountaingrove Golf Club; and Asquared Studios of Santa Rosa for a rammed-earth home in Sonoma with a pagoda-style roof.

The judging team was made up of architects from the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said Carissa Greene, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Redwood Empire group.

Although they are based on the opposite coast, the D.C. architects are all familiar with Sonoma County, particularly for having studied the visionary Sea Ranch in architecture school.

“Sonoma County is on the map now,” Greene said. “We are a destination. Of course, we’re known for our food and beverages, but also architecture.”

Sonoma County’s dramatic and diverse landscape and still-abundant open space can be an architect’s dream palette.

Growing from the grasslands

Mary Dooley, co-principal with her husband, Chris Lynch, with MAD Architecture in Petaluma, created a contemporary compact retirement home for two Palo Alto graphic artists on the county border west of Petaluma.

The home was designed to respect the land and its history as part of the old Olompali Land Grant, which stretched between Novato and Petaluma. The land grant was once held by Camilo Ynitia, a 19th century leader of the Coast Miwoks and the last Hoipu, or headman, of the Miwok community living at Olompali. He was the only Native American on the northern end of Alta California to receive a land grant during the period of Mexican rule.

An old fence line, left over from the rancho days, remains on the property. Out of respect for the property’s history, Dooley chose to maintain it and designed the house to follow the fence rather than cross it, which meant creating an angle at one end.

The house is set into a bowllike depression in the land, which naturally insulates it from the noise of the road below and from the winds that routinely push through the Petaluma Gap. The house is set among native grasses near a grove of blue oak and sculptural serpentine outcroppings.

Dooley said the site spoke to her, saying, “We all grow out of the grasslands here.” She routinely consults the land when siting and orienting a structure.

To maximize the views down to the valley and up to the hillside, she tilted the roof on two ends, creating a shape that makes it appear is if the house is going to take wing, like the hawks and turkey vultures that hunt the land. Solar panels are installed on one half of the roof to catch the maximum amount of sunlight.

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