Fertile Grounds

Originally published in 

Nestled in an apple grove in Sebastopol, California, the Orchard House is a rural idyll. And with the voracious design appetites of a family of gastronomically inclined clients, this concrete prefab construction is quite literally a moveable feast of a home.

Orchard House

During harvest season in Sebastopol, California, the sweet smell of fermenting apples travels from the orchards all the way to Highway 101, luring drivers off the road in search of a fresh Gravenstein or Golden Delicious. Though just 50 miles north of San Francisco, the Sonoma County town is absolutely rural, dense with fruiting trees and vineyards, and it’s partly for this that Naomi Hupert and Ben Kinmont moved here with their son, Ian, and daughter, Natasha, in 2003. But they couldn’t leave New York City behind entirely, so they found a pair of architects who could adapt elements of their Manhattan loft to the California countryside.

One feature the family hoped to retain in the new home was the unified, open living space they’d enjoyed back east. But this wasn’t the only requirement. First and foremost, the house had to be completely accessible to teenager Ian, who gets around in a power wheelchair. Second, they needed a place that could accommodate two home offices and a study area for homeschooling Ian. Third, they needed space not just for cooking, which they do a lot of, but for massive kitchen projects like making wine from their homegrown grapes and oil from their olive trees. “It was very task oriented,” admits Naomi.

When Ben and Naomi found Anderson Anderson Architecture, they felt confident that their list of practical needs could be translated into a beautiful building. “What we liked about their work is that their projects didn’t all look the same,” says Naomi. “So we didn’t know exactly what we’d end up with.” Principals Mark and Peter Anderson embraced the opportunity to create an architectural container that would support the family’s daily life without interjecting a dominant design concept. “We wanted the house to be really robust and kind of rustic so that anything could happen in it,” Peter says. “It’s not fussy in the sense that one thing out of place would create a disruption. They completely live in it.”

The central living space is wide and airy, with a comfortable sitting area at one end, a dining table at the other, and in between a spacious cooking zone. Only the sleeping quarters sit apart from the main room, along a sun-filled corridor lined with artworks by various members of the family. Two “drive-in” bathrooms feature open showers with long drains that occasionally harbor a wild mushroom or a few blades of grass. The house is wheelchair accessible both inside and out. Smooth pavement extends through a carport and covered walkway to a separate wing where Ben’s mother, Vikki, lives. “Ian can go from his bedroom all the way to mine in his wheelchair,” Vikki says. “It’s phenomenal.”

The material of choice for the loft-cum-farmhouse was concrete, for which the Andersons devised a prefab strategy. A series of identical C-shaped modules from the same formwork compose the structural system, which sits on a continuous slab foundation. In order to integrate the house into its surroundings, the walls line up exactly with the rows of trees outside, which are planted on a grid, spaced 25 feet apart. As a result, the expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass doors span the open alleys between the trees, creating seemingly infinite views in every direction that taper into trunks and leaves.

The concrete extends even into the interior structures, framing the large kitchen island, with custom niches for appliances and sinks. The only accent materials are wooden doorframes made from reclaimed redwood wine barrels and galvanized steel siding on portions of the exterior. In the center of the main living area, an enormous slab of salvaged cypress cuts across the space, resting on sawhorses with open shelving underneath. Throughout the house all storage areas are open, leaving crockery, dishware, food, books, and clothes in plain view. “There is no cabinet or drawer here,” explains Naomi, “because one of the hard things when you are in a wheelchair is to back up and open a door at the same time.”

The open system is just one of many instances where Anderson Anderson’s intentions are borne out. The simplicity of the overall design presents no opportunity for conflict with the family’s way of life. Metal buckets of wooden spoons on the counter, giant bowls of table grapes from the garden, and a five-gallon jug of fermenting wine don’t amount to visual chaos; rather, they’re evidence of a hands-on existence.

Many of the culinary craft projects are an extension of Ben’s work as an artist and dealer of antiquarian books about food and wine. Off the kitchen, Ben stores his inventory—faded spines lined up on long shelves and a tall cabinet where a few select objects are kept. Next to a gaping fireplace in the sitting area is the most prized and frequently used of his antique cooking implements, an 18th-century French tourne-broche à poids—a delightfully analog contraption for turning a spit over a flame. Naomi demonstrates how it works, spinning a wheel that activates a set of pulleys that automatically turn the metal rod.

The oversize hearth (of which there is an outdoor double) was part of the original design specifications. “Ben said he wanted a fireplace big enough to cook a wild boar,” Mark recalls, “and I said, ‘That’s great because I’ve got a recipe for that.’ That’s when we knew we were the perfect match.” No boars have been cooked to date, but Naomi and Ben do entertain large groups on a regular basis, often preparing food grown on their property or nearby.

The five core members of the household are rarely without additional company. Ben’s brother Seth stays over often and visitors rotate in and out. “The Andersons did a very good job of creating spaces that are completely accessible to all our family and friends,” says Naomi, emphasizing the paucity of universal design that upholds high aesthetic standards. “We’ve seen quite a range of approaches, and they tend toward a generic hospital look with plenty of white plastic and poorly adapted structures. This house is so well designed that its accessibility is sometimes overlooked.”

While Naomi admits to occasional nostalgia for city living, the family has found a comfortable rhythm in their country loft. “Our visitors joke that we have basically just transported our New York life right here without changing much except for lighting,” she laughs. But she never forgets, of course, that only here does a crisp autumn day bring the pleasure of apple picking in her own backyard.


To see more images of the project, including photographs that didn't appear in the magazine, please visit the slideshow.

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