A Sonoma County House Built to Welcome Friends

Lisa Picard, an avid cyclist, spends much of her time riding in cold, wet conditions near her home in Seattle. So when she began thinking about a weekend house, great weather and riding terrain were of prime importance.

She focused her search on Sonoma County, Calif., because “it’s core cycling country,” she said. “It’s known for two things I really love, which is awesome food and great cycling.”

Ms. Picard, 51, the chief executive of EQ Office, a real estate company owned by Blackstone, grew up in Southern California and had fond memories of visiting Big Sur and the Russian River in her parents’ motor home. “The air, the light, the soil are all part of my blood,” she said.

Credit…Matthew Millman for The New York Times

At first, she considered buying a house. But in 2013, when she asked Kyle Gaffney, a cycling friend and business associate who is a founding partner at SkB Architects, to tour a few homes with her, he told her she could build a new house on an empty lot for about the same cost as buying and renovating one.

“I said, ‘We don’t have to build a big house. You can be in at a million bucks and get exactly what you want,’” Mr. Gaffney said.

By the time they returned to Seattle, Ms. Picard had made an offer on a lot of just over a half acre in the town of Graton, Calif., about 65 miles north of San Francisco. She closed that June, for $190,000.

As an executive who regularly works with architects on office design, Ms. Picard had specific ideas about what she wanted in a home. “Being single and without kids, my friends are my family,” she said. “So I wanted to create a place that was all about community and gathering.”

In terms of style and materials, “I wanted it to be very authentic to the area,” she said. “I also wanted the place to patina and get better with age, just like the wine in the region.”

Using those concepts, SkB created a home split between two structures: a 1,209-square-foot one-bedroom main house and an 849-square-foot guesthouse with a garage and bike-storage barn. In between is a patio for long nights spent grilling, dining at an enormous Donald Judd-inspired picnic table, drinking wine around a firepit and playing pétanque on a gravel court.

Both buildings have walls of rammed-earth blocks made from dirt excavated at the site. Other materials include weathering steel, galvanized steel, cementitious panels and standing-seam metal roofing used as siding — all intended to age gracefully with minimal maintenance and protect against fire. And at the back of the lot are three fire-suppression cisterns of galvanized steel that resemble farm silos but are connected to sprinklers, in case of emergency.

Many of the interior finishes are just as rugged, including concrete floors, wires that are surface-mounted in conduit rather than hidden inside walls, sliding metal barn doors and zinc kitchen counters. One splurge was tile from Heath Ceramics, which Ms. Picard bought at a discount from the company’s overstock shed in Sausalito, for the kitchen backsplash and showers.

The house — which Ms. Picard calls Farmhaus — is meant to be as casual and welcoming as possible. There is no formal front entrance. From the driveway, weathering-steel gates open into a pebbled landscape filled with grasses, trees and cactuses designed by Terremoto, a firm Ms. Picard hired after seeing its work at Scribe Winery, in Sonoma.

The main house and guesthouse can be entered several ways, including through glass garage doors that are left open in good weather and a wall of folding-glass panels by the kitchen and dining room. There is no air-conditioning, Ms. Picard said, because it is unnecessary with the natural ventilation and thermal mass of the rammed-earth blocks.

And by allowing the interior spaces to flow into the yard, she said, it “doubles the volume of the living area.”

The unconventional design did cause one problem. “I had two banks deny me financing on it, just because they couldn’t understand it,” Ms. Picard said. But she persisted and eventually obtained the loan she needed to pay for construction, which cost $690,000. Ironwood Builders began work in the summer of 2016 and completed the house 16 months later.

For the first two years, Ms. Picard used the house as she had intended, having friends over for long bike rides and barbecues, and sometimes inviting them to stay there when she wasn’t around. But since the pandemic struck, it has become more of a personal retreat. “During Covid, I’ve been here the whole time, with a couple of trips to Seattle,” she said.

Still, she is hopeful the house will support a more social lifestyle again soon. “It’s a community place,” she said, “for people to gather and share.”

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