A Barn-Inspired Retreat in Northern California Hangs Over a Hillside

North of San Francisco, Faulkner Architects draws on agricultural influences to create a striking homestead.
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In the early 20th century, writer Jack London made Glen Ellen, California, some 50 miles north of San Francisco, his permanent residence. Since then, the town’s rolling hills, aged oaks, sprawling ranches, and agricultural history continue to attract those looking for a slower pace of life. One such family, drawn in by the pastoral charm, purchased a homestead which included a run-down 1950s tack barn. Originally hired to renovate the barn and transform it into a bunk house, Faulkner Architects were called on for an even larger project: the building of a nearly 4,000-square-foot family retreat. 

"We've operated a lot in the mountains with concrete and steel, and it was really rewarding to work on a warm, wooden building with an agricultural reference," architect Greg Faulkner says.  

"This is actually our third project with them," says architect Greg Faulkner. "We did a house in Lake Tahoe and one in San Francisco. As always with our work, this project took its direction from local historical building typologies, but more importantly is a product of the microclimate and topography of this site."

The home features sustainable heating and cooling, plus enhanced glazing, insulation, and efficient mechanical systems to mitigate overall energy use.   

While Faulkner Architects are known for their steel-and-glass projects, this project called for a different approach. The team took inspiration from the tack barn, the neighborhood, and the surrounding areas, which are dotted with ranch-style, 1950s homes as well as barn-like structures—architectural styles Faulkner says are "confusingly morphed between two vocabularies." Plus, a visit to one of architect Peter Zumthor’s cabins in the charming village of Leis in the Swiss Alps was highly impactful.

What emerged was a simple, rectangular form with an asymmetrical gable roof dubbed the Big Barn. The shorter side faces the southwest sun, reducing the thermal load on the building, while full-height ventilation shutters at the top of the barn reference traditional builds and allow a natural cooling effect. The fireplace and chimney, foreign to the barn typology, are connected to the building with glazed joints, a visual metaphor for the welding of old and new.

The eastern side of the home gets beautiful views and the morning sun. The fireplace and chimney, foreign to the barn typology, are connected to the building with glazed joints.

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Appearing quite minimalist from a distance, the design is extremely detail-oriented. For example, for the array of windows (which were modularly designed), Faulkner completed 25 exercises to view them from every angle. Then there’s the way the building cantilevers out. In order to leave the hills intact, the builders excavated uphill and added a steel-grated bridge to connect the upper sleeping level to the hillside and the adjacent tack barn. 

The natural material palette of reclaimed redwood from an old Northern California mill, corrugated Cor-Ten steel, and black steel sash windows blends seamlessly with the California oak floors, walls, and ceilings. The siding is pre-weathered and allowed to patina over time.

In order to leave the hills intact, the builders excavated uphill and added a steel-grated bridge to connect the upper sleeping level to the hillside and the adjacent tack barn.

Inside Big Barn, wood layered upon wood creates a warm ambience. A welcoming passage leads guests throughout the home, and the massive ceiling height creates the same loftiness one would sense in a real barn. The luxe interiors, which were done separately, were designed by Ken Fulk. 

An asymmetrical, pitched roof lends the living and dining area the unhindered spaciousness of an agricultural building.

Light wood cabinets in the kitchen are a matte contrast to polished concrete floors.

A deep soaking tub makes for a luxe retreat.

Working with Redhorse Constructors, Faulkner Architects describes the build as quite the "learning process with a different vocabulary to grasp," but ultimately their designs will always continue to focus on the client, the place, and the collective experiences they wish to create. 

"A project will come through with patience if you allow time to do the work," he concludes.    

Related Reading: Before & After: A Ramshackle Barn in Northern California Becomes a Family’s Rural Retreat

Project Credits: 

Architect of Record: Faulkner Architects, Gregory Faulkner / @faulknerarchitects

General Contractor/Builder: Redhorse Constructors, Jay Blumenfeld

Structural Engineer: CFBR Structural Group, Tyson Colovich

Civil Engineer: Adobe Associates, Tim Schram 

Landscape Design Company: Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture 

Interior Design: Ken Fulk / @kenfulk

Photographer: Joe Fletcher Photography / @joefletcherphoto


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