A Gorgeous, Off-Grid Guesthouse Perches Lightly on a California Ranch
As they approach, visitors to Steve and Margaret Cegelski’s new guesthouse north of Santa Barbara might be momentarily confused. Their quarters are hidden from sight, tucked under the lip of a hill, with a green roof as camouflage. It’s not until they descend a concrete staircase dividing a sunken two-volume structure that they see their accommodations, not to mention the spectacular view of the coastline straight ahead.
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An intimate connection to the environment suffuses every aspect of this singular retreat, set amid a wildlife preserve and working cattle ranch defined by majestic bluffs, oak trees, and chaparral-blanketed slopes. "Imagine California a hundred years ago," says project architect Dan Weber of Santa Barbara–based firm Anacapa.
The guesthouse sits about 300 yards from the Cegelskis’ Craftsman-style home, which existed on the property when the couple moved there in 2009. They started the guesthouse project shortly after, in order to have a separate space for hosting family and friends. Land use and access in the area is a contentious issue, and concern about increasing limits on construction led the couple to build sooner rather than wait. The design includes a detached garage, which is similarly buried in the earth.
The long, narrow layout of the guesthouse follows the natural contours of a sheltering ridge that runs perpendicular to the coast. Measuring 800 square feet, it cantilevers over a steep rock face, and the living/kitchen/dining area flows through glass sliding doors to an L-shaped deck. "You can sit there with a glass of wine and be eye level with a red-tailed hawk," says Steve. The smaller, accessory unit is set farther back.
"The house is elemental," says Weber, who collaborated on the project with designer Steve Willson. "We endeavored to make it out of materials that would wear and take on a patina over time, so they could feel like part of the landscape." Unfinished steel, board-formed concrete, and glass continue inside, where rich black walnut—used for ceilings, cabinetry, and furniture—provides an inviting contrast. "On a foggy day, you want that feeling of warmth around you," says Margaret. Brass fixtures complement the deep-hued wood.
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"It’s almost as though you peeled up the grass on the hilltop and put it back down on the roof."
Dan Weber, architect
Both the main house and the new structure are completely off-grid out of necessity, as power doesn’t reach the property. "It would have cost $250,000 to bring electricity up here," Steve explains. A 6kW photovoltaic array and a 48-volt battery system power the guesthouse’s LED lights and low-usage appliances. A propane generator acts as an emergency backup.
The lodging also has its own well and water treatment system, while wastewater goes to a septic tank and dry well. Radiant floor heating, cross ventilation, and an insulating green roof—designed by the Cegelskis’ daughter, landscape artist Danielle Gaston, and thriving with yarrow, succulents, sedum, California poppies, and other native flora—keep the inside temperature comfortable.
Because of the stringent ordinances and review process, the project took six years to complete, but the Cegelskis were determined to take as long as necessary to preserve the integrity of the design, rather than compromise or seek out cheaper, faster alternatives. "We went slowly," says Steve. "Because of the location, we felt like we were creating a work of art."