Down to Earth
On a property in the Russian River Valley, the Staub family has crafted a retreat rooted in an appreciation of unadulterated landscapes.
Many families planning the construction of a vacation home approach the task the way they might go about customizing an SUV at a car dealership: “We’ll take this size engine, this kind of leather trim, an iPod adapter and we’ll drive it right off the lot.” The vision for the house—from the number of bathrooms to the fabric covering the seats around the backyard firepit—is uncompromising and meant to be quickly fulfilled. For the Staub family of San Francisco and Hawaii, creating their own retreat followed a slow-growth rhythm, one more akin to tending a garden than picking out a luxury cruiser.
“We really feel that you have to spend time with the land where you’re living to get to know it,” says Jon Staub, a San Francisco- and Hawaii-based interior designer who, along with his parents and three siblings, envisioned a “neutral space” where his family could gather and relax. After purchasing 300 wooded, rolling acres in Northern California in 1998, the Staubs were in no rush to send in bulldozers and battalions of workers to erect an overnight mansion. Instead, they began looking for local architects and landscape designers who could realize their wishes.
After a bit of research, the family discovered Dirk Bass, a Guerneville-based architect who learned his craft from modern pioneers Craig Ellwood and Rafael Soriano. “They knew there was this oddball architect up in Guerneville,” says Bass, “and it just took a while for me to find the time to talk to them.” Once the conversation started, though, a connection was made and an extended dialogue about craft and design was underway.
“The Staubs wanted something very special but weren’t quite sure what it was,” says Bass. A few of the directives were quite clear from the outset. Because of the family’s Hawaiian roots, outdoor living spaces would be essential. And because of their love of nature, the landscape architecture would have to harmonize with the environment rather than altering it. (Noted NorCal landscape designer Gary Ratway would ultimately lend his gentle hand to the Staubs’ land with sweeping, uncomplicated plantings.)
The core of the project was to build the central cottage on the property for the matriarch of the family, Judith Staub. As that cottage slowly took shape in the style of a gold miner’s cabin, the rest of the family came upon the idea to build semi-permanent tent structures. “It was a very green idea,” explains Bass, who fulfilled the family’s wish not to lay concrete under the canopy of trees on the property by using pressure-treated logs on the ground to create a foundation for the tents. “The longer we stayed in the tent cabins,” explains Jon Staub, “the more they simply felt just right.” And the fact that these structures will have to be replaced roughly every 15 years ensures the Staub family’s conversation about the best way to shape their shared retreat will continue for generations to come.
Written by Nathan Cooper.
PHOTO: Lisa Eisner.