Simply Fantastic

This cedar-sheathed custom home "planted" amid the rolling hills of California's famed Napa Valley bears a striking resemblance to a vineyard shed. In reality, the 996-square-foot weekend escape is dedicated to providing its owners with a sanctuary where they can find respite from their hectic urban-oriented lifestyle.

May 01, 2005

Custom Weekend Retreat

This cedar-sheathed custom home "planted" amid the rolling hills of California's famed Napa Valley bears a striking resemblance to a vineyard shed. In reality, the 996-square-foot weekend escape is dedicated to providing its owners with a sanctuary where they can find respite from their hectic urban-oriented lifestyle.

"The intention was that this retreat would resemble a working barn," says architect Mario Aiello, who designed the single-story structure to complement the rolling landscape which surrounds it."It almost appears to be a non-building because it harmonizes so well with its surroundings."

Inside, a palette of luxurious finishes including mahogany, French limestone and sandblasted glass contrasts the minimalism of the home's one-room design. One of its most striking features is a pair of massive track-mounted glass and wood "barn" doors, each 10-feet wide and 9-feet tall, located at the mid-point of the 40-foot-wide structure's interior living space.

The doors glide apart to reveal the owners' private 3-acre vineyard. "You can literally open up half of the house to the outdoors and enjoy a framed view of the fields of grapes. The intention was to create a place where the clients could embrace the land when they stayed there."

For now, the homeowners reserve this one-room retreat for their own personal use, but eventually it will function as one of two guest houses on their 65-acre parcel of property north of San Francisco. "The barn will be just one element of a total residential land plan that has been created for the site," says Aiello. A second, slightly larger guest house has recently been completed in addition to a separate building which functions as a private exercise facility. The formal main residence is still in the planning stage.


"Each building will have its own distinct personality," says Aiello, "but we will incorporate similar accent materials into all of them." The three residential structures on the property will feature unique, yet complimentary, Tuscan-inspired architecture with the barn being the least formal.

"The real beauty of this whole project," says Aiello, "is the way it will be related to the site. Rather than building a single massive house, there will be a series of less dominant structures that are both connected and separated by the rolling terrain. When the estate is complete it will resemble a charming residential village."

The land plan for the site, developed by Steven Dailey of Napa-based SDA Planning and Design, calls for a natural separation between all of the buildings on the property, which are then linked by landscaping features and trails. As a boutique vintner, the client set a priority for Dailey to establish the vineyard first. This was completed several years before residential construction began on the property.

Although having a land plan for a residential site is not unusual, says Aiello, it is less common for the majority of the landscaping to be completed before any other construction has begun. "In this case the finished landscaping was essentially in place once we had finished the barn."

Design Team

Aiello credits the success of this project to the collaborative efforts of the design team, which included the client, the landscape architect and himself. "We really worked well together and shared the same vision for the end result."

Having a good working relationship between all those involved was important, agrees Dailey. "For a project like this, everyone became a designer in a fashion," he says. "I learned a lot about architecture from the architect, and he learned a lot about site planning from me. We developed a sincere respect for the contribution that each of us brought to the table."

Initially, it was Dailey who worked with the clients to establish a plan for developing the property that they already owned. "When creating a comprehensive site plan, I believe that it is critical to identify all the program elements that are associated with the project from the outset."

Dailey describes his approach to site design as a "holistic" one because he looks at the entire site as a whole, recognizing that each element will have some effect on it. This includes not only the limitations of the topography, but also the requirements set by the client. By doing this, Dailey says builders can form a long-term development strategy that has all of the pieces of the puzzle, present and future, already identified.

"Rather than just starting a building," says Dailey, "it makes more sense to create a plan for everything that the client wants to do. A comprehensive program allows you to predict ahead of time if things will really work. This way we make our mistakes on paper rather than out in the field. It also allows builders to test the plan within the confines of a budget. And budgets are critical. For everyone, even those with lots of money to spend, there is a break-even point."

Design Concept

The design goal for the vineyard barn, says Aiello, was to create a retreat for his clients where they could relax in a peaceful down-to-earth setting. "They were looking for a very simple design which would accommodate their needs. They had no intention of entertaining here. And they wanted it to be finished as quickly as possible."

Aiello's solution was to design the getaway using "a true barn shape." The exterior of the home features a shed roof covered in galvanized metal, board-and-batten cedar siding and louvered clerestory windows above the sliding "barn doors." A concrete plinth provides the foundation for the home and serves as the interior floor.

Outdoors, the hardscaping extends directly out from the foundation and functions as patio space. "The landscaping does not come right up to the house," says Dailey. "This is similar to a European farm house where this space would have been considered functional. This might have been where the family dried their grapes or spread out harvested olives."

Inside, the sloped roofline translates into a vaulted ceiling with exposed rafters. A single large room provides living, cooking and dining space as well as the couple's sleeping quarters. A 5-foot tall mahogany credenza, designed by Aiello, and built by Borchers Custom Woodworks of Vacaville, Calif., hides a raised bed platform from view without impacting the natural openness of the living space.

"This project is most remarkable for its simplicity," says Aiello. "There is only one interior wall in the whole place and even that does not go all the way up to the ceiling."

According to Aiello, the design process took only several weeks and another three months for actual construction.

Hurdles & Outcomes

"The site's steeply-sloped topography was the most challenging element of this project," says Dailey of the parcel's rolling terrain. The only flat area, a 3-acre portion on the valley floor, was developed as the vineyard, he says, leaving only hillside terrain for the rest of the buildings.

"Construction costs are exponentially higher under these conditions," says Dailey. "A steep grade makes things much more complicated. Everything from digging trenches to staging and storing materials requires a tremendous amount of pre-planning."

For this reason, he says, it is essential to select local contractors who have experience building under these conditions. "They need to be familiar with the constraints and jurisdictions particular to this area." Daily says that part of his job is to act as a liaison between the client and his contractors throughout the project.

For this project, Dailey made use of local and native materials in his landscape plan. Excavated materials were stockpiled and reused. "We were able to re-use about 60 percent of the stone that we excavated," he said.

The home was completed in February 2002.


Custom Weekend Retreat

Style of Home: Napa Valley Rustic

Location: Napa, Calif.

Total Square Footage: 996 sq. ft.

Hard Costs (per sq. ft. excluding land): $250

Architect/Interior Design: Dahlin Group Architecture Planning, San Ramon, Calif.

Site/Landscaping Design: SDA Planning & Design, Napa, Calif.

Builder: R. H. Hess Development, American Canyon, Calif.

Major Products Used: APPLIANCES: G.E.; Thermador; CABINETRY: custom; COUNTERTOPS: French limestone; DOORS: Andersen; custom; PLUMBING FIXTURES: Chicago Faucet; Kohler; FIREPLACE: Superior; EXTERIOR FINISH: cedar board and batten siding; DECKING: concrete slab; crushed granite; PAINTS & STAINS: Behr; ROOFING: galvanized corrugated metal; WINDOWS: Andersen

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