When Cathie and David Partridge set out to build their own home in Southern California, they sought to create a contemporary dwelling that responded to their love of art and design. They wanted it to be open and airy, have a connection with the outdoors, and celebrate natural materials. It was also essential that the home accommodate the couple’s extensive art collection, which they had amassed over three decades.
The couple found a one-acre site near San Ysidro Creek in Montecito with an existing single-story 1960s ranch house amidst a grove of native coastal live oak trees. "The trees are sacred here, and you’re not allowed to touch them when you build," says Cathie. "I thought, since I’m in the trees, why don’t we build a tree house?"
They approached Peter Tolkin and Sarah Lorenzen of TOLO Architecture, and together they decided that in order to realize the vision of a tree house, it would be necessary to build a new home rather than renovate the existing one, which was typical of American suburbia and the period in which it was built.
Since the oak trees are protected, it was impossible to build a conventional home within the drip line of the trees. TOLO Architecture suggested floating the home above the ground to enable building as close to the trees as possible without damaging them. "We saw this project as a bit of a restoration project in terms of this almost mythical native landscape of California," says Tolkin. "It was about letting the oaks breathe again."
The home has what appears to be a free-form plan, and it’s conceived as a series of pavilions connected by a glass circulation spine that also acts as a gallery space. The design team developed the plan by layering different pragmatic requirements—the drip line of the trees informed the location of each pavilion; the orientation of each pavilion responds to the movement of the sun throughout the day; and the function of each pavilion was driven by the clients’ requirements, such as space for family to stay and an art studio.
"I think it’s an architect’s fantasy to build a series of volumes clustered under the trees with an exterior circulation space—you could do that in Southern California, but you would be exposing people to the elements," says Tolkin. "We had this notion that the connection between the pavilions could actually be this really amazing space for art—so it’s not just a circulation space, but also a gallery."
While there is a conventional front door that faces the street, there are also three other doors that lead into the landscape as you move through the circulation spine. The front door leads directly into a glazed entry foyer that looks through the home to a new oak tree that was planted at the end of the project, marking a desire to give back to the site.
To the left of the entry foyer is a living room and dining pavilion, which is oriented to take advantage of the evening and afternoon sun. To the right is a kitchen volume with a space for breakfast dining that is oriented toward the morning sun. "My background is in photography, and there’s this notion of being like a photographer and taking a series of pictures," says Tolkin. "Each volume has a privileged view out to the landscape, and then another view up into the sky."
As you move back into the site, the spaces become more private—a powder room, the principal bedroom and bathroom, a guest bedroom, and an office that doubles as another guest bedroom. At the rear of the site is a separate studio used by Cathie for her art practice.
"You move through the gallery to get to these spaces, and the doors could be closed off if you really want to understand this circulation spine as a continuous space for art," says Tolkin. The polished concrete floor and simple, white walls provide a neutral backdrop for the artwork that evokes the feeling of being in a gallery.
The interior showcases engineered laminated veneer lumber (LVL), complete with visible lamination lines and stamps. The material is usually used for rough structural framing, and it would typically be clad. "We tried to take something that was rough, and not normally very visible in most projects, and let it be exposed," says Tolkin. "It has a rustic quality and a rough precision that, in my mind, relates to the kind of things that have come out of California—plywood skateboards, the Eameses’ plywood furniture… it ties back to a history of craft. That’s very much part of this house."
Shop the Look
The wet areas in the home—the four bathrooms and the kitchen—sit as a series of colored ceramic vessels against this backdrop of raw, natural materials. Each of these rooms is entirely clad in handmade tiles of a singular color—salmon pink in the powder room, pastel yellow and grass green in the bathrooms, ocean blue in the master bathroom, and electric blue in the kitchen.
Originally, when the clients said that they wanted a tree house, Tolkin had considered a timber-clad exterior. As California is at high risk for wildfires, however, they wanted to create a fire-resistant armor. While they initially considered fire-rated timber, and then zinc, they eventually settled on copper.
"The bark on these beautiful oak trees has a color that is sometimes silvery, and sometimes warm and almost coppery because of the way the earth reflects the light and the leaves flicker," says Tolkin. "We also wanted a cladding that would change and develop a patina over time, much like the trees change their color and transform."
"I was horrified initially," says Cathie. "I didn’t want a shiny house! I knew it would turn dark, but what was shocking is how it happened in just six months. Now it’s a very dark, almost purple color. It blends in, and it looks fantastic."
This protective approach to the design of the home—both in the cladding and the raised platform on which it sits—is essential given the volatile nature of the region, and it has already saved the home on two occasions. The fireproof cladding protected the home from the devastating bushfires that ravaged the area in 2018; and the following year, the raised concrete piers saved the home from floods and mudslides, which damaged many of the neighboring homes. "My house survived both the fire and the mud, which is incredible," says Cathie. "It’s a miracle."
"This home isn’t designed to be seen from one vantage point as a complete object—it’s seen as you move around it," says Tolkin. "It’s about assembling something new from many different influences—the architecture of the ’60s and ’70s, the California Arts and Crafts tradition, the architecture of Southern California that pays homage to the modernists... It’s also about letting the relationship with the client filter through in a way that really affects the project. That relationship with the clients was really my favorite aspect of this whole project."
Construction: RHC Construction
Structural Engineering: Joseph Perazzelli Structural Engineering
Civil Engineering: Michael Viettone Civil Engineering
Landscape Design: Wade Graham Landscape Studio
Lighting Design: Lighting Design Alliance
Energy Consultant: Monterey Energy Group
Photographer: David Hartwell
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