A designer friend came to me some years ago with a proposition. He had tried and failed to obtain planning approvals for three houses. Neighbors had successfully appealed his project to the City Council. He had redesigned the project. The neighbors again appealed. And again his project was denied. His client, who had owned the lots for some time, and had little invested in them, owed him money. They were willing to give him the lots (there was a small debt on them, and a few thousand owed in back taxes) and call it quits. He wasn’t inclined to try again. He didn’t have a few thousand dollars. If I was willing to design a new project and battle for approvals, he would give me half the project (a house and garden site) and half the debt. And I’d pay the taxes. We borrowed the $3000 from relatives, and I began designing.

After a biblical seven years of political and bureaucratic contention we were at last able to build our home at the outer edge of an old subdivision on the verge of an arroyo in Santa Cruz, California. I had hoped that my second child would be born into the house that we had built, but that was not to be. Still, I was deeply committed to creating a solid and enduring home for my family. My wife Janet, a landscape architect, and I, an architect, worked together to fashion spaces, indoor and out, that we could settle into over time.

The politics required that my design drawings portray a nondescript house that looked every bit as mundane as the tract houses behind me. It was an effort, but I managed to dress a well developed floor plan in a drab exterior, obtained design permits at a rancorous public hearing, and then applied for ‘minor modifications’ to the roofline and wall massing at the time I filed for my building permit. Our home is not large- just under 2100 square feet- but that is nearly four times the size of our first family apartment. We don’t anticipate ever moving from this place; We own the lot next door to us, and so our children may never need to move either. The labor of construction, like that of horticulture, is sweetest when you know that your children, and theirs, might enjoy the fruits thereof.

Wallace Stegner’s invocation of ‘the deeply lived in house’, was, from the conceptual beginnings of our home through to the current honings and refinings, the inspiration for our plans and our actions. Though I adhere to the guidelines of professional thoroughness and competence demanded by my license to practice architecture, for my own home I prepared minimal drawings - a permit set for the city- and then designed on site as we went. Designing and building became a syncopated activity, with myself as general contractor, the builder my best friend (still is), and the subcontractors all people I knew and liked. I was on the job site at the beginning, middle and end of each day, witnessing and absorbing the progress, being appraised of upcoming burning issues, weighing advise given by seasoned and committed trades people, delivering the details necessary to keep the job on course, and laboring until dark and through weekends. Bill Schultz is perhaps a rare contractor, one who is sophisticated enough to understand the intent of the architect, but not needing to prove he’s a better designer. When his work was finished, I felt he had given so much toward our house, beyond his professionalism. I bought him a cello. An even trade. It was the most productive and rewarding enterprise I have ever undertaken. I considered giving up architecture when the house was finalled and we had moved in, fearing no other project could ever feel this good. But of course I was beyond broke by then and needed the work, and so I talked myself past any major transmutations.

The narrow site abuts the rear fences of neighbors on the adjacent street; a long driveway approaches the parking area, garage and studio; one walks from there, beneath pleached plane trees, past an enclosed courtyard terrace, to the front door. The site precluded a grand streetscape- there was no street. The outward appearance of the house mattered only to the extent to which it framed or supported the garden rooms that we were planning. So architecturally the house has a relatively unselfconscious (I am an architect, after all) feel; it was exempt from the Exterior Design tradition of so much of the domestic landscape today.

Most designers feel compelled to make their houses look good on paper, with each elevation forming an attractive, two dimensional composition. This works fine for hilltop Villa Rotunda’s (classical, stand alone structures) but is mere vanity when we realize that we can only experience one straight-on elevation of a building at a time, and that most are situated where it is actually impossible to view one or more sides of the building at all.

Knowing this, I attempted to model the south elevation, the ‘face’ you glimpse through the trees as you approach my house, as a.....face. A rounded parapet wall with projecting ear, two windows (one winking, with pronounced eyebrow) were meant to present a welcome countenance to returning dwellers and guests alike.

The exterior walls of our house are stucco, (Stucco was chosen to address fears of wild fires in the canyon below our house, and to reflect the Mediterannean quality of the design, the landscape, and the climate here) with a colored cement wash which will fill the inevitable stucco cracks each time it is renewed. Also, as it wears and fades it will show the underlying hues of previous washes; the walls will age honestly- naux faux. Likewise, the interior walls are of veneer plaster with integral color, varnished near plumbing. The plasterers were directed to wet trowel the walls to maximum smoothness; patterns and variations were a natural results of a straightforward application of the plaster. Six to nine pigments were used to create the wall colors (unlike most paints, which contain two or three); the walls change hue under different lighting conditions and at different times of the day. Bathroom walls were three coat dairy barn cement plaster over building paper and metal lath, treated with silicone impregnators. The deep hued interior walls provide the psychological anchorage for our hilltop home, creating a solid, dug-in feel that takes the precariousness out of living on an edge. Light wells at the heart of the house banish the usual gloom that plague dark walled spaces. Black rubber base rose to the occasion in such a warm context. Indeed, the plaster has a way of humanizing otherwise industrial or commercial components. And the dyed wood ceilings, reminiscent of the ox blood-stained raftered vaults of medieval Europe, suggest a mythic firmament.

Windows are set into dyed (Mohawk dyes) kiln dried douglas fir 2x frames (2 to 12 inches wide, depending on the need for shelf or shadow in each particular location) which in turn are inset in the rough framing to provide a stucco reveal on the exterior and all the trim we needed on the interior. All new windows are custom commercial grade powder coated aluminum, or salvaged steel sash (including the French doors at kitchen and den). Color transforms and personalizes otherwise commercial metal windows. Those in the living room angle to increase and direct the view of the canyon, while gaining depth to the space. Frames for the dyed solid core interior doors are treated in a similar way. So most of the finish carpentry was completed, and varnished, during the rough framing. Because on child’s room faces east and the other south, I placed an insulated fiberglas skylight across the wall separating the two rooms, with a vertical element of the same material below. This allows the two rooms to share light, but not noise. They both have views of the canyon, and we continue to adapt their rooms and furniture to their evolving needs.

Floors are of 5” cherry in the library, dining room, upstairs den, entry, hall and stairway. Bathroom floors are 1” porcelain hex tile to match the 1930’s moderne bath of that earlier apartment. Kitchen and laundry have Forbo linoleum floors, sheet stock in the laundry and three colors of tile in the kitchen. Bedrooms are carpeted and all transitions in floor materials are articulated by inexpensive marble door thresholds ($14 each).

Cabinets are cherry wood, custom built by Cliff Friedlander and the granites for the tops were culled from cutoffs at the local cutter’s shop. These shops are often willing to give you their leftover pieces (they have already been paid for the original slabs) in exchange for cutting and finishing fees. We went with our hearts for the main kitchen counter- hard rock maple.

Most of the roof is not visible. Some is simple comp shingle; the bedroom wing is single ply. The roofs facing the courtyard are corrugated galvanized with Fiberglas panels at the overhang around the kitchen, and as skylights in the garage/studio. The second floor deck is paved with the same concrete tile that caps the retaining walls down below, tying together this outdoor space with the others. Private and sunny, it waits there for some time when we may indulge in just sitting and enjoying. It has thus far done excellent service as a sleeping deck.

Architecture is, on all levels, conflict resolution. Budgets, contracts, ordinances, egos, the list goes on, from start to call backs. House design seeks to balance the public/private, open/shut, spacious/intimate, bold/unassuming needs of everyday shelter. We didn’t want to feel confined in our house- wanted the long view through, but we wanted each space to be well defined as a place to be. We accomplished this ‘place within a space’ through low cabinets, ceiling and floor finishes, and the two steps down into are living room, which gave us a taller lid. A free-standing book shelf defined a library within the space of our entry. Two two-foot wing walls define a pantry at the end of our galley kitchen.

The house we built supports rather than masks who we are and what we hold dear. We are avid materialists, but every scrap of our controlled clutter has a history that includes or inspires us as we move through our home and our life as a family. We are discriminating scavengers, seasoned flea marketeers, and we prefer to make our own furniture and our own art. The house and gardens are works in perpetual progress and reconsideration, as we had hoped they would be. I hope these photos convey to you what we believe so strongly- that you can and should judge domestic architecture by how fully it supports a full and thoughtful life. And of course we would argue that aesthetics are an intrinsic, but not an exclusive, element in that equation. Witness our clothesline, an ever changing allee of laundry leading through the vegetable garden toward the promontory beyond the house, the steel supports of which are crowned with a selection from a brass hose nozzle collection garnered casually over the course of ten years of Saturday yard sales and Sunday flea markets, and the geometry of which tricks the eye into supposing an adherence to one axis when it has actually turned to address another.

The house and gardens are repositories for our various histories- community, family, personal- and facilities for our lives together. The sandstone steps of the old jail that pave our entry(our building site proved a cheaper dumping site than the city landfill for the demo contractor); the bricks of the county courthouse, destroyed in the earthquake , that make our hearth; the steel sash windows and doors salvaged from a long lost historic preservation battle; an old friend’s paintings on plywood that became the panels of our dining room cupboard doors; the recycled kiln bricks that pave our courtyard and entry walk (these are laid on a compacted dg bed in a very easy-to-install pattern); the rusticated foundation blocks of a renovated Victorian that made our raised vegetable beds; and the bulbs, tubers, herbs, shrubs and trees transported from other homes and gardens to this one, intact or as seeds or nurtured cuttings.

I can remember other clients suggesting during construction that if their projects proved to be too costly, they could always sell them and have me design bigger and better houses with the profits. I would respond that I had designed their homes with the intent that, after living there for a year, they would never want to leave. Even as we began exploring the ‘room for improvement’, we knew from our first month in our new home that we had arrived.