A Daring Home Clad in Shining Copper Armor Fends Off Natural Disasters

A Daring Home Clad in Shining Copper Armor Fends Off Natural Disasters

Set in a grove of coastal oaks, this art-filled home by TOLO Architecture has survived fire and flood.

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.

Cathie and David Partridge, both avid art collectors, commissioned TOLO Architecture to design a new home for them to respond to their interest in art and design. Cathie is an artist and former dancer, and David—who sadly passed away shortly before construction began on the home—was the founder of a successful manufacturing company and was instrumental in launching UCLA’s business school. The couple were also committed patrons of a number of art organizations in Los Angeles, and were involved in the founding of MOCA, the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and Kidspace Museum.

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.

Working closely with an arborist, the design team installed concrete piers in areas that would be within the drip lines of trees to enable the home to cantilever out and come close to the oak trees without damaging them. "It’s almost like an acupuncture needle," says architect Peter Tolkin. Areas of the home that needed plumbing and other services were located over more traditional foundations that were well clear of the trees.

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."

TOLO Architecture worked with landscape designer Wade Graham to create a garden of native and drought-tolerant plants. The spaces between the volumes of the home—outside the master bathroom and bedroom pavilions, for example—have also been planted to create small native gardens.

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 wanted the cladding to be something that had a scale that was broken down over the larger volume, and that felt like a kind of armor cladding that would protect the home," says architect Peter Tolkin.

"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."

The circulation space that connects the pavilions doubles as a gallery, so it’s much wider than a conventional corridor. This part of the gallery features a work by Tom Wudl (in the foreground), and a painting by Tam Van Tran (in the background).

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.

"The home wasn’t an inexpensive house to build," says architect Peter Tolkin. "At the same time, it doesn’t have very fancy interior finishing. We wanted to design a modern house with a certain kind of spirit, and we didn’t think that the interior materials needed to be overly fancy. The two places where we really splurged—I think to great effect—were on the tiles in the bathrooms and kitchen, and the copper cladding, which protects the house but also has a very strong visual component to it."

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."

The dining and living room volume features an eclectic mix of furniture and opens up to an outdoor terrace that encourages engagement with the site and the trees. The circular artwork in this space is by Manny Farber.

Every room in the house has a view out to the landscape and another up into the trees or the sky. "In some places, you will see a branch or a treetop framed by a skylight, and in other places it’s about looking up at the changing sky," says architect Peter Tolkin. The casual dining and lounge area in the kitchen volume, for example, looks over the hills in the distance.

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.

The small, salmon-pink powder room offers a pop of color in the otherwise neutral gallery/corridor space. The painting in the background is by Steve Rodin, and the print above the table is by Jim Isermann.

"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.

"There was a notion that the floor and walls could be neutral surfaces, except for these very colorful rooms, and that would really help to make it feel like it’s the art that's the thing that you actually see," says Tolkin. "When you put art on a more neutral surface, it tends to pop out and it’s very visible." This section of the gallery features a painting by the client, Cathie Partridge.

The couple’s art collection is diverse, representing their different tastes. This part of the gallery features work from Tam Van Tran (left), Yunhee Min (right), and a didgeridoo from Northern Australia.

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."

The geometric shape of the roof was driven by the desire to capture a "perspective view" out into the landscape, through both windows and skylights. "The volumes of the roof extend that view out into the landscape," says architect Peter Tolkin. "The angle and shape of these various views were all connected, which is how the shape of the roof structure got produced." As a result, each volume has a unique shape and section.

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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.

The handmade tiles used to clad the wet areas are by Heath Ceramics. "It was definitely a splurge," says architect Peter Tolkin. "I thought that there would be something very powerful about having these colorful, enclosed volumes. It’s almost like being inside of a ceramic vessel." 

"Cathie has an incredible love of color," says Tolkin. "This was an opportunity for engagement that would feel very authentic—this kind of engagement with our clients is vital to what we do."

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 architects considered a number of different fire-resistant materials for the exterior cladding, including zinc and a special kind of pre-burnt wood. "It was my husband’s idea to do the copper," says Cathie. "He said, copper is down, so buy all the copper you can buy!" 

"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."

"There’s a ‘matter of factness’ to the detailing," says architect Sarah Lorenzen. "You see this in the LVL beams, and the chain-link fence—very much like you’d see in a skate park—that forms the handrails and the fence for the exterior." She likens this use of materials to the work of the L.A. School of Architecture in the 1970s and ’80s. "Architects, like Frank Gehry, had a real interest in how materials fit together, but not in a precious way," she says.

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."

A concept diagram of Branch House by TOLO Architecture shows how the home changes as you move around and through it.

"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."

Site plan of Branch House by TOLO Architecture

Floor plan of Branch House by TOLO Architecture

Elevations and section of Branch House by TOLO Architecture

Related Reading:

This Breathtaking Ranch Home Was Constructed Without Felling a Single Tree

A Dramatic Copper Roof Funnels Light Into This Sculptural London Home

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: TOLO Architecture / @toloarchitecture

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

Arborist: Westree

Photographer: David Hartwell


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