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Minimalist House, Maximalist Views

In a region known for faux Tuscan villas, a wide-open home of cedar and oak stands out.


Confronted with 360-degree views of vineyards, mountains, and cliffs at this Healdsburg site, architect Julie Dowling did the sensible thing: She swapped out walls for panes of glass.

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The outdoor dining table and barbecue area overlook vineyards.

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Colorful Hecks ottomans by Blu Dot complement the surrounding landscape.

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A sculptural shade structure blocks harsh afternoon light and hides the kids’ pool toys inside. “It’s a practical piece of art,” says owner Wayee.

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The dining table, designed by Colleen Smith of California Wood Studios, is made from a 12-foot slab of walnut. The tabletop has three tiny bullets embedded in it, which Smith estimates pierced the tree over 100 years ago.

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The modern bath faces a 12-by-10-foot sliding door that opens onto an unpopulated cliffside.

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By day, the master bedroom is flooded with natural light. “The open living areas and the more secluded bedrooms feel like separate, sacred spaces,” says Wayee.

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Deciding which direction to face a brand-new home in an awe-inspiring landscape may sound like a welcome quandary for any designer. But after spending weeks gaping at vineyard vistas, mountain ranges, and mature trees on this hilly Healdsburg site, architect Julie Dowling was flummoxed. “The biggest challenge was the 360-degree views,” she says. “It was hard to figure out which perspective was better.” Rather than block any of the picturesque vantage points, she settled on a bold alternative: She would turn walls into windows, building a house out of glass.

The four-bedroom home was to be a frequent weekend getaway for Castro dwellers Wayee, an investor in venture capital, her husband, Ethan, an angel investor, and their seven- and eight-year-old children. (The family asked that their last names not be used.) “Living in such an urban, wonderfully chaotic neighborhood, we wanted the kids to have a place to run around in nature,” says Wayee. After hunting throughout wine country for 18 months, the couple came across this grassy knoll. They hired Dowling Studios to design their house with two directives: Make it wholly respectful of the surrounding environment, but architecturally daring.

In response, Dowling created a home that is both minimalist—“the fewest materials we’ve ever used,” she says—and inviting. A series of sliding window panels spanning 36 feet enclose the living room and kitchen. Similarly, the west-facing master bathroom, which looks out on a woodsy cliff, is walled in glass, affording scenic views from the freestanding, modern bath. “There’s no division of life between indoors and outdoors here,” says Wayee.

The home’s exterior is clad in an ebony-stained western red cedar that seamlessly flows into the home, covering the living room and kitchen ceilings. The floors are white oak, stained dark, and the cabinets are made from Echo Wood, a sustainable veneer. The entire structure consists of two wings, one holding the living room and kitchen, the other containing the bedrooms. That divide lends a balance of wide-open social spaces and private retreats. The entryway connecting the two sections is fronted by a grand, 7-by-10-foot pivoting glass door that frames an oak grove.

Even the furniture within nods to the scenery. Felt stools in the entryway are upholstered in shades of olive, charcoal, and acid green to mimic the hues of the Healdsburg hills. “We were almost trying to create a reflecting pool in their colors,” says Dowling.

Of course, the real pool is out back: a 16-by-60-foot plunge with a built-in hot tub. Nearby, the family’s so-called maker barn is designed for projects and jam sessions. Both the kids are interested in woodworking, and their father plays piano and guitar.

Since the home was completed this summer, though, the couple’s children haven’t spent much time inside. A quarter-mile trail leads from the house to a small pond, where the kids pitch tents and camp out on warm nights. (Their parents are in range via walkie-talkies.) “I love that they can be close by but still have independence,” says Wayee. “Adjusting to life in a place that’s so open and transparent feels raw, but it’s liberating.”


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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