The clients for this expansive compound were a professional couple and their family who owned a large parcel of land about 150 miles north of San Francisco in Willits, California. The compound is both a residence and a facility for a nonprofit ecological foundation.
The extensive property allows for the study of the ecosystem, flora, and fauna, the practice of sustainable forestry, and the reintroduction of native plants. The buildings needed to accommodate both the primary residents and numerous semi-independent guests.
The 1200-acre site is a mix of open grasslands and California live oak, madrone, and Douglas-fir forests. The grasslands provide little shelter from the 100˚-plus days of summer or the freezing and windy periods of midwinter. After long walks on the property with the clients, we all identified a site that would require minimal grading of the land and no tree removal, and was centered around a single, unusually large, rock outcropping. This rock, covered with moss, was a living garden. In the summer the dormant moss turns a deep russet color; seeping with water in the spring, it is once again verdant. The narrative of the seasons passing is told each year on the face of this boulder.
The compound was conceived as a collection of three buildings joined by walkways that wrapped around the rock outcropping, creating refuge from the wind, rain, and sun—a protected center, like a circling of wagons. Reminiscent of an Old West street frontage, these covered walkways provide the summer shade and winter shelter needed to allow comfortable circulation among the three buildings. The intense vermillion stucco exterior is offset by wainscot walls and patios of Choctaw sandstone and steel gray standing-seam metal roofs.
The landscape plans were influenced by a comprehensive inventory of over five hundred species of flora on the site. We wanted to clearly reestablish the native grasses, extending them seamlessly to the edge of the building—celebrating the existing grasslands, with no need for elaboration. Native fescues were planted without irrigation after the first rains of fall. The non-garden was our goal. The interior of the courtyard was treated minimally, with gravel extending simply to the boulder’s base, in the spirit of a Zen rock garden, with grasses beyond.