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Living the Dream

Hillside homes with panoramic views and casually elegant Wine Country houses are hallmarks of the counties north of the Golden Gate. Often deemed luxury homes, they’re custom-designed houses with an attention to detail that makes them special. And although they’re sometimes large, the real luxury lies in the creativity that makes them unique and takes full advantage of the beautiful settings the North Bay offers.

“To me, a luxury home can be 6,000 square feet; it can also be 1,500 square feet,” says architect Doug Hilberman of AXIA Architects in Santa Rosa. He explains that what’s most important is taking the time to maximize the quality of both indoor and outdoor spaces. “Each time we approach [a new house project], we start from a different vantage point,” he says, pointing out that each client and each site is different—and that’s what makes architecture exciting. “I love getting to know our clients. I love what differentiates each of them. Each [design] is a bit of a journey,” he says. “It’s really grounded in learning about our clients and their lifestyle.”

Changing perspective

Every architect has favorites. For Hilberman, a remodel in downtown Sonoma, tucked back into a side street on an acre of land, is high on his list. The original house focused on the interior, with a big dining room and bedrooms above a kitchen in a very constrained space. Hilberman updated it to reflect the Sonoma lifestyle by increasing the number of rooms that engaged with exterior spaces to facilitate indoor-outdoor living. He also enlarged the kitchen by changing the house’s configuration. “We flipped the bedrooms upstairs over the dining room and opened the volume of the kitchen,” he explains.

His clients wanted something that spoke to the agricultural roots of the area, so he used natural materials to capture the nostalgia of local history, and interpreted it in a new way. “Essentially, they wanted a modern farmhouse,” he says. The result is a 3,500-square-foot house with four bedrooms and an office. The house had its challenges, such as considering wind direction to make the outdoor experience enjoyable, but Hilberman finds that challenges help to drive the character of a house. “Challenges are the pieces that add spice to a project,” he says.

View from the top

When he did a remodel four years ago on a house on Sugarloaf Drive in Tiburon, it was truly déjà vu for architect Chris Craiker, of Napa-based Craiker Architects and Planners. He designed the house 20 years before to replace one that once leased to actors Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. “We started from scratch but had to retain the same footprint,” he says. He retained the views that make the house special.

The residence is high on a ridge, with 270-degree views encompassing Richmond to San Francisco and Mill Valley. One of Craiker’s goals in the original design was to get in as much glass as possible to capture the views. The area is prone to high winds, however, so the windows required special reinforcements to withstand winds exceeding 100 mph. The clients also wanted a swimming pool, and to protect it from the wind, Craiker put it in a courtyard. In addition, some portions of the house were off the slope, but the house required one foundation system that would work for the entire house. The solution was to drill 30 feet into the hill and install deep pilings.

It was a challenging house, but Craiker enjoyed working with the homeowners, and says, “They wanted lots of special details, which is fun.”

Old world sensibility

A standout for Ron Sutton, of Sutton Suzuki Architects in Mill Valley, is a home on the hillside above Old Tiburon. His client was a Frenchman, whose father and grandfather were woodworkers, and so he had an appreciation for fine detailing. He loved modern architecture, but also wanted the sense of something old world, so Sutton drew from architectural history and worked it into a modern design. He used limestone veneer, which added texture and gave the house an instant presence. The introduction of stone was significant, because cobblestone recalls old European streets, and incorporating stone in both the interior and exterior of the house enhances indoor-outdoor spaces. The homeowner wanted to spend lots of time outdoors but the hillside is windy, so Sutton created sheltered exterior spaces. Stone retaining walls, along with imported olive trees and landscape elements, give the site features reminiscent of France.

The property has 170-degree views that include Angel Island and San Francisco, and Sutton spent a substantial amount of time at the site deciding how to maximize them. Even the kitchen has a view, and to make the most of it, Sutton raised the floor 12 inches so it looks over the dining room and family room. The original intention was to build a two-story house, but local restrictions meant the new house couldn’t exceed the height of the one it was replacing, so Sutton created two stories by digging down. In addition, he had to protect a view corridor, so he split the house into two parts and connected them with with a hallway featuring a reflecting pool that became a highlight of the house. “Challenges add to the design when you embrace them rather than fight them,” Sutton observes. “Listen to the site and listen to the clients. That’s the key to success,” he adds.

Green and gracious

A house on Belvedere Island’s cliffside facing Sausalito is also one of Sutton’s favorites. He designed it for a young couple, and the intent was to have a resort feel in a home where they could raise their three boys. They bought two lots with existing houses and planned to combine lands and build a new house, but first they lived on the property, because the woman, an interior designer, knew it would be helpful to experience the weather and views. “It opened them to more possibilities. They found out what they didn’t want to do,” says Sutton.

One of the challenges was the property’s steepness, which required cutting into the hillside and using retaining walls to create play areas and accommodate a pool. “You can always do it, but it has to be aesthetically pleasing,” says Sutton. “This created a very long house.” In addition, everything had to be green and sustainable with low emissions and local products, which included cedar or redwood for the trim and concrete pavers from Napa Valley Stone. Solar systems generate electricity and heat water, which is efficient for features such as radiant heating in floors and results in minimal use of electricity. “This was one of the first green homes we really worked on,” says Sutton, and while that made the house memorable, he especially enjoyed working with the client, who had wonderful design ideas to contribute. “It was a great collaboration,” he says. “Working with her was really fun.”

Shades of the day

When Doug Hilberman designed a house with five different view corridors in the Mayacamas Mountains, his clients were keen to engage with the landscape. To develop a vision for the property, he discussed his clients’ lifestyle with them and looked at the qualities they would experience throughout the day as the sun worked its way across the horizon. “We spent a fair amount of time talking onsite,” he says. The result was a 4,500-square-foot home on one level, placed unobtrusively on a knoll, with a guesthouse that captures the views and an infinity pool overlooking the mountains.

The owners wanted to be able to move activities outdoors from any of the major areas of the house, and they liked to swim in the mornings, so Hilberman considered how they engaged socially, then structured the rooms and placed the pool accordingly. In addition, they planned to have aging parents living with them, and a single level was important so the elder residents could enjoy the home fully. “The unique qualities had to do with the social aspects,” says Hilberman, who enjoys the passion and craft in residential design, as well as the intimacy involved in working with the people who are going to be living in a house.

Spreading out

Chris Craiker had been doing drawings for a couple who wanted to build their dream house for 10 years before it became a reality. The couple owned two lots in Napa for 12 years, and their original plan was to sell them and buy a property elsewhere, but then they decided to build on the lots they already had. They wanted as few stairs as possible, so the house is long and low, stretching across the property, and it has two driveways, which means they have a separate one for an RV. “This house took a lot of thoughtfulness,” says Craiker. It contains a large number of custom cabinets—“Lots of places where they could put their memory albums, photo albums,” he says, explaining that the albums go back generations.

His clients aren’t tall, and they needed a kitchen that’s accessible, so most of the cabinets are low. They also wanted to get to their electronic equipment easily, so he designed accessible storage cabinets and a hall behind the TV set to house it. In addition, the house has a second story, not for the owners, but for their family with children so they’ll have their own place when they visit.

Craiker believes it’s important to connect a client with the right contractor and recommended one who took a lot of time to get everything just right. They waited months for him to finish another project in order to retain him. He reports that the clients are very pleased with the results and says, “I enjoy making people happy and making people feel accomplished.”

Small and special

One of the houses most meaningful to Craiker is a small house in Napa that he designed to replace one that slipped two feet off its foundation in the 2014 earthquake and had to be demolished. “We had carte blanche. We could really build anything as long as it retained the previous footprint,” he says.

He describes the previous house as a hodgepodge of design that lacked character, and because it’s in the Napa Historic Downtown area, the clients wanted the new house to look like it had been there for a long time, but with a contemporary style and interiors. “We wanted to do something that would fit in historically,” he says. The house had a grapefruit tree in the center of the patio, and his clients wanted to save it, so Craiker designed an L-shape that would wrap around it. “It wasn’t just a tree. It was a lifestyle. They wanted to maintain that little bit of civility,” he says.

Starting with those criteria, the design evolved, and the new house took shape with high-volume ceilings, an open plan with kitchen, living and dining rooms merged to make one great room, two guests rooms for family members or use as offices and a master bedroom with windows on three sides at the back, facing the grapefruit tree. In addition, the couple wanted to accommodate a mother who was getting older, so Craiker incorporated large doors, a big shower with no curb and as many amenities as possible on one floor meet that need. Small houses can be challenging and sometimes tough, Craiker says, but he finds them fun and satisfying, because clients recognize he’s done something special for them.

A treasured lifestyle

The North Bay draws buyers from all over the world looking for a particular lifestyle, and realtors specializing in luxury homes have some gems to offer. Mary Anne Veldkamp of Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa recently listed a property with three houses on Westside Road in Healdsburg. The estate includes a new contemporary home at the top of a hill in the midst of Pinot Noir vineyards contracted to a local winery. The property crosses the Russian River and is close to the Sonoma County Airport; it’s a prime location, because it’s also close to Healdsburg’s downtown plaza.

Indoor-outdoor living is a priority for many buyers, and that’s the lure of a home on Brack Road in Healdsburg. “The outdoor entertaining areas on this one are fabulous,” says Veldkamp. In addition to the main house, it has a guesthouse, pool, cabana, tennis court and a 3000-square-foot wine cave. Other features are a creek, five acres of planted vineyards, gardens and easy access to Healdsburg Plaza.

Another of Veldkamp’s favorites is a house built in 2013-2014 on Wallace Road in northeast Santa Rosa. Most of the rooms have doors leading to the outdoor entertaining areas and infinity edge pool and “the home has easy indoor-outdoor living which is the essence of the wine country lifestyle,” she says. The property includes a guesthouse as well as the main house, a barn, a shed and farmland where the residents can have goats and chickens.


Quality over quantity

“Buyers aren’t necessarily just looking for a luxury house. Rather, they are buying a lifestyle says Realtor Ann Harris of Coldwell Banker in Sebastopol. “The luxury buyer also isn’t always looking for something big,” she adds. Rather, many of her clients are Bay Area residents looking for second homes because they want to get away from a hectic lifestyle, but also want to buy something that won’t require too much maintenance since it will be a part time home. 

Among her favorites is a house with striking architecture on Graton Road in Sebastopol, which has lots of floor-to-ceiling glass to give the requisite indoor-outdoor feel. Another is a plantation-style home on Dry Creek Road in Geyserville. “It’s very “Martha Stewart” inside,” she says. Among its highlights are attractive wood features in the house, flat land with 700 feet of frontage on Dry Creek, and a detached barn with a unit above…another feature second home buyers appreciate since it provides a place for guests to stay.

Two more houses that made an impression on Harris are rammed earth construction, one on Bohemian Lane in Occidental and another on West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg. Rammed-earth construction is an ancient building method that has seen a revival in recent years as people seek more sustainable building materials. It’s a technique for building walls, foundations and floors using natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime or gravel.

Ann describes the Occidental house as “sophisticated” with smooth surfaces with an open floor plan, floor-to-ceiling glass, and an infinity edge pool over looking an acre of lavender and two acres of mature Pinot Noir grapes, giving the property a true Wine Country ambiance.

Big or small, luxury homes reflect a lifestyle that is unique to Northern California. What characterizes them is owners who appreciate what the area has to offer, and architects with the vision and talent to do something that stands apart. At heart, it’s all about the people—and that’s what really makes them special.