Geological Formation

By Lydia Lee / Published by Dwell
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A net-zero house in Northern California is earth-first in more ways than one.

Bill Gawthrop and Diane Taylor might live in the only house that is deliberately designed to look as though it has been through an earthquake. Their home, located on a ridge in Northern California’s Mendocino County, has a diagonal "fracture" near the front door that shows how the earth could have shifted. This nod to geological stress is appropriate, given the couple’s professions: They are geophysicists, now retired. 

Contrasting expanses of glass and rammed earth wrap Bill Gawthrop and Diane Taylor’s home in Yorkville, California. The couple’s bedroom is located at one end of the house and their offices are at the other, with an open-plan kitchen, living room, and dining area in between. The bed frame is Gawthrop’s own design. 

Contrasting expanses of glass and rammed earth wrap Bill Gawthrop and Diane Taylor’s home in Yorkville, California. The couple’s bedroom is located at one end of the house and their offices are at the other, with an open-plan kitchen, living room, and dining area in between. The bed frame is Gawthrop’s own design. 

Overall, the 2,700-square-foot house is a triumph of building science, a modernist dream home that is also completely off-the-grid and net-zero.

Contractor John Richards built the earthen facade to take on the appearance of sedimentary rock, referencing drawings the residents made to show the range and depth of colors they desired. 

Contractor John Richards built the earthen facade to take on the appearance of sedimentary rock, referencing drawings the residents made to show the range and depth of colors they desired. 

Photo by Alan Nicholson

The person who figured out how best to express the couple’s scientific bent was designer Alan Nicholson, who is based about an hour away in Ukiah. One of the first things Nicholson suggested was to excavate a grassy knoll in order to create an exposed rock formation right at the entrance to the house. "When we heard that, we figured Alan was sufficiently crazy and that we could probably work with him," Gawthrop jokes.

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Illustration by Tim Vienckowski

The house itself is long and thin, an unusual combination of rammed-earth walls—inspired by Gawthrop and Taylor’s time spent living in the Southwest—and a huge amount of glass. The transparency helps with climate control. In winter, low sunlight passes through the south-facing windows and heats the thick earthen walls on the north side; in summer, the glass is shaded by deep overhangs, so the walls insulate against the heat.

A 70-square-foot reflecting pool greets visitors as they approach the home’s elemental north entrance. 

A 70-square-foot reflecting pool greets visitors as they approach the home’s elemental north entrance. 

Photo by Alan Nicholson

Given the home’s subterranean appearance, its interiors are surprisingly lofty. The cedar-lined ceiling appears to float, supported on thin steel beams and cable trusses in place of bulky girders.

Gawthrop, an avid hang-glider who is a member of the U.S. Soaring Team, wanted the home to evoke flight; the standing-seam roof from Metal Sale is held up by wire struts to resemble a plane’s wing. <br>In the foreground is the rock formation designer Alan Nicholson had excavated.&nbsp;

Gawthrop, an avid hang-glider who is a member of the U.S. Soaring Team, wanted the home to evoke flight; the standing-seam roof from Metal Sale is held up by wire struts to resemble a plane’s wing.
In the foreground is the rock formation designer Alan Nicholson had excavated. 

Photo by Alan Nicholson

"You get the heaviness of the rammed earth but the lightness and airiness of the floating roof, and it creates this dynamic effect," Nicholson explains. Says Taylor, "We like looking at the structure of things." 

Sixteen-foot-tall glass walls, paired with seven-foot overhangs and three-foot solar screens, optimize the home’s passive climate control and capture views of the <br>valley that unfurls across the couple’s 160-acre property.

Sixteen-foot-tall glass walls, paired with seven-foot overhangs and three-foot solar screens, optimize the home’s passive climate control and capture views of the
valley that unfurls across the couple’s 160-acre property.

Photo by Alan Nicholson


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Illustration by Lohnes + Wright

Lydia Lee

@lydialee

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lydia Lee is a writer and editor specializing in architecture and design, with a particular interest in sustainability. Currently, she is an editor at the California edition of The Architect’s Newspaper. Her writing has also appeared in Metropolis, the New York Times T Magazine, Dwell, Eco-Structure, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. Lee has also been on staff at California Home+Design, Salon.com, The Industry Standard, and NewMedia. She got her start as a technology reporter, and once got to interview Claudia Schiffer about her custom pink Palm. At home, one of her favorite possessions is a Milo Baughman recliner that she rescued from the sidewalk.

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