Keller Court Commons

Keller Court Commons is about two successes – a thoughtful site plan and meticulous details. a Similar in concept to a Bungalow Court in Los Angeles, the planning approach is coined a Pocket Neighborhood by the client who built the project.

The site concept was to arrange eight small homes around a garden court providing all residents with views of Sonoma Mountain. Buildings snuggle up to mature oaks on an old farmstead near downtown Petaluma. Parking is located on an alley drive around the perimeter and mostly out of sight providing car-free useable open space. Residents live in a park like setting with full or framed views of Sonoma Mountain.

With the site’s 130-year-old farm heritage in mind, the design details reference the agricultural outbuildings that once peppered the property behind the existing farmhouse. The architecture composes farm forms and barn shapes and a mix of materials in a light-hearted manner. Quality over quantity was sought in this intimately sited small home development targeting folks who are down-sizing, retirees, young professionals, and small families. With a built-in community and the ability to walk a few blocks to town, the design balances private realms and neighborly connections.

Color saturation was in play throughout the project details and two structures stood out. One was the Commons building exterior – a collaboration between architect and the artist who created a rainbow of lime-plaster panels in concert with the burnt wood slats. Another was the entry portal where the mailboxes live and it marks the pedestrian way from the driveway. The portal was composed of polycarbonate sheets and cedar framing.

Design Challenge

The owner had built several Pocket Neighborhoods in Washington State and found Petaluma not only a town he wanted to build in, but to live in himself. Keller Court Commons was unique because it was a large piece of land in the middle of an historic neighborhood. A speculative development for an unknown resident is a risk when planning single family homes patterns differently than the suburban model. Smaller homes, front porches, detached garages, and no fences marking property lines were familiar in the older parts of Petaluma, but without public streets and sidewalks in front, the leap of faith into something “new” found a narrow demographic. One way of overcoming buyer’s expectations was to employ familiar elements like porches. The referential refresh composed of playful ag-like architecture seemed to make people smile and appreciate interesting interior volumes. Those that purchased the homes in Keller Court were already seeking something smaller and a simpler way of life and there is a broad age range in the owners. An architect who is an expert in zero net energy bought one of the houses and promptly removed the gas range making her home the first net zero electric house on the block. (The builder, though forward thinking, had an old school view on cooking and was not up on the induction electric cooktops). It is sometimes said that the project is only as good as the client, but to find methods that better the client’s vision as a collaborative team is the real work. This client was a design adventurer, and rather than convince him to try new things, the design challenge was to help him edit and not over do it. Once solution was to code building elements through material consistency. Roofing is the same metal profile throughout. The houses are corrugated metal and cedar siding. Porches are perforated for connection to neighbors. Front doors are Dutch doors with a color identity for each unit (mailbox color match found in the entry portal). The Commons building was the color catchment device with the houses more neutral. This was met with some resistance and the addition of the Entry Portal in rainbow acrylics seemed to satisfy the client’s love of color.

Physical Context

The original property was a farmhouse and numerous outbuildings primarily for chickens, for which Petaluma is famous due to the invention of the egg incubator in town. The chicken coops had long been cleared from the property and was an open field that many neighbors used as a defacto dog park and short cut. The lot was in the middle of a block and extended to the next street. It was deep and visually cut off by bordering trees on two sides. Views of Sonoma Mountain and protecting the oaks were paramount and created the basis for the site design finding the balance between architecture, unit counts and open space.   Taking advantage of the sloping topography at the edge of the property, the level of the accessible Commons building is dropped along with the party patio and the bocce court. Social gatherings sheltered against the concrete site walls under the steel shaded patio maintains resident’s privacy and their views over the double pitched shed roof of the clubhouse.   The nature of the project type promotes social wellbeing. The site plan design created a neighborhood focused on safety, checking in and the human need for community. The porches are for connecting with neighbors. The upper decks for quiet time outside. The green is for a game of croquet or frisbee or a blanket and a picnic. The vegetable gardens are communal. The organization around the green creates a watch dog neighborhood and single people and elders feel less vulnerable. Wellbeing is integrated into the day to day and indoor comfort including solar powered radiant heating for every house.   The client’s goal was to provide a better housing solution in a rural town in Northern California. The Planning Commission welcomed the approach and the project was shared well before it was built as an example of what the City was looking for. With so many benefits to the residents, some wonder why this approach is not commonly found in the Bay Area. The incentive for developers to build more small homes does not pencil out with fewer and larger homes.   The folks who now reside in the houses came to Keller Court to live small, to get rid of most of their unnecessary stuff, and to have easily maintained gardens where the close-knit pattern naturally lets people look out for each other.