Orchard House

Project Description

Orchard House is the transformation of an ailing 1980’s house and neglected landscape into a modern home for a family of five on a spectacular Sonoma apple orchard. The renovated house, revitalized orchard, and recreational landscape form a site-specific, sustainable dwelling for gathering, production, and play. The reductive architecture is informed by nearby agricultural sheds whose beauty derives from utilitarian economy and purpose. Orchard House mediates tradition and modernity by reinterpreting vernacular forms with an architecturally layered language of place and time.

The original, owner-built house had two bedrooms and baths. It was a dark warren of spaces, the finishes were dated, and systems dysfunctional. Structural problems were prevalent and strategic ways were needed to strengthen the building using the existing foundation and as much framing as possible. There was scant connection to the site: the expansive view of the valley and ridge was barely noticeable inside and there was no landscape design. The orchard was failing.

To accommodate visits from extended family and friends, the owners wanted a third bedroom and bath but to keep the footprint the same. By converting the attached garage into a guest suite, additional space was captured within the developed envelope. Capitalizing on the gable height, a sleeping loft was added above the new bath and closets. Space from the garage was also claimed for a pantry hall and laundry. Small infill additions at the center and south end added lateral capacity and exchanged unused decks for an entry with mudroom and a multi-purpose room for watching movies or quiet reading.


Integrated architectural and landscape design maximizes the property use with unified expression. The site design includes functional, recreational, and agricultural improvements. A minimally-sized carport at the top of the driveway satisfies covered parking requirements but primarily shelters a ping-pong table. New concrete stairs replace the former asphalt driveway and reposition the entry sequence uphill to preface the relationship between the house and landscape below. A new saltwater pool is a salutary body of water on hot days. The restored and expanded orchard and raised vegetable beds produce enough food for the family and the excess bounty is donated to the community food bank.

Inherent in the project approach are sustainable principles which start with the judicious use of resources. The renovation increased the useable area of the house without expanding the developed footprint. Existing construction was retained wherever possible. Improvements considered solar exposure and microclimate. New construction is durable, low-maintenance, and recyclable. Efficient renewable energy and hot water systems provide independence during occasional outages. Improvements to site drainage and its dispersal support the orchard. The landscape design promotes biodiversity and contributes to the surrounding ecosystem.

Design Challenge

The primary challenge of Orchard House was to provide additional space and a new architectural identity while working with as much of the existing structure as possible. The existing house had two bedrooms and baths and the owners sought to add a third bedroom and bath for guests and wanted the interior space to be more open with better connections to the outside. As important, the owners wanted a house that would be part of the community, referencing the local vernacular on the outside and true to the spirit of modern life inside. The design of Orchard House belies the constraints and restrictions of the existing construction. With limited exception, the new house is built on the existing foundation, slab and subfloor and within the existing walls. Interior shear walls were retained and restricted interior plan options. The deck structure was reused and, in some places, reduced. The existing house was structurally and seismically weak and the renovation was an opportunity to strengthen the building as well as reimagine the design. To gain more space, the attached, two-car garage was converted to a guest suite and a much-needed service hall with laundry, pantry, storage and a wet zone adjacent to the pool. Capitalizing on the volume of the garage gable, a sleeping loft was added above the new bathroom and closets. At the front, an open deck was enclosed to create a serviceable entry and mudroom. At the south-west end, the reentrant corner was rationalized for a small multi-purpose room for watching movies, reading or to house overflow guests. Two new steel trellises expand the programmatic space outside and the perception of space from the inside: the trellises elide transitions from inside to out with space that belongs to both realms. In the north-east corner, the trellis provides a shaded terrace outside the kitchen and dining area: multi-slide and pocketing doors open the walls and enhance indoor-outdoor connections.  At the south, the new steel trellis defines an intimate zone within the large deck, shades the glazing, and softens the transition from the gable end to the landscape. The infill additions rationalized existing irregular geometry and serve as drag struts and buttresses. The new south trellis is also a moment frame which strengthens the weakest end of the building. Most significantly, the roof was transformed from a staggered, unbraced aggregate of peaks into an elongate gable which provides structural stability and satisfies the owners’ aesthetic agenda. In the living area, new painted wood ceiling paneling has both structural and aesthetic value, tying together existing undersized and widely-spaced roof rafters and adding a crafted texture to the interior. The existing foundation drainage was poor and caused occasional flooding. Improved site drainage and landscaping not only protects the house but also channels groundwater to help irrigate the orchard. Landscape improvements, such as replacing the former downslope asphalt driveway with concrete steps, increased site performance while also enhancing the design.

Physical Context

Sonoma County’s agricultural heritage lies in its apple orchards. Place names such as “Gravenstein Highway” are tributes to that heritage. American botanist and Santa Rosa icon Luther Burbank praised the fickle fruit: "It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.” As the apple economy withered, many orchards were replaced with vineyards. The Gravenstein itself faced extinction but Slow Food Russian River preserved the endangered apple in its Ark of Taste. The owners chose to restore the apple orchard and added 64 new persimmon, peach, plum and pear trees along with other apple varietals. By restoring the orchard, the community’s history is preserved and enhanced. Neighboring vineyards benefit from the orchard’s biodiversity. In the generous spirit of farming communities, excess fruit is donated to the local food bank. The owners wanted the house to speak to the farms and stables nearby and to keep their personal lives private through vernacular anonymity. They are inherently modest, averse to exhibition, and value great design. The house is visible from the road and signals contextual allegiance through its gabled metal roof and dark board and batten siding. Up close and inside, however, the house has decidedly modern rhythm, texture, and expression. The design of Orchard House navigates public and private realms through languages of economy and utility. The integration of architecture and landscape provides a meaningful basis for the project’s form. The site has two ecologies with California coastal oak woodlands uphill, near the road, and the agricultural landscape down the slope below. At the nexus is the house. A north-south landscape axis continues through the building, demarcating the intersection of these two ecologies. By locating the new carport at the top of the driveway, distanced from the house, the entry sequence is expanded down the slope, along an east-west axis, on staggered concrete steps and entry bridges, finally arriving at the orchard.   There are majestic views overlooking the valley. Glimpses of the ridge are seen from the driveway but also screened by the pines and by the house. The full panorama isn’t revealed until you are inside. A sculptural, unclad moment frame dissolves the solid gable into the site on the south end. The north side of the house and pool frame another partial vista. Multiple sliding doors open to the outside and also bring the landscape in. Connections to the landscape on all sides clarify the project intent. The living clerestory and steel trellises reflect changes in the sun’s position and help to track time while changes in the landscape track the seasons.