Last Modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 1:28 p.m.
Barbara Buck's front gate is only a mile from “town.” But considering “town” is tiny Cazadero, and that from her gate off King Ridge Road it's another mile to her second gate, and then a further trek up a service road to her house at the very top of the ridge, Buck is about as remote as you can get in Sonoma County without falling off the grid or into the Pacific.
But it was up here, in this damp-in-the-winter, hot-in-the-summer spot so close to the clouds, that Buck chose to build her dream “hunting lodge,” a fairytale of stonework and Gothic arches, wood columns and clay-plastered walls. It also boasts what has to be one of the most extraordinary bathrooms anywhere, a glass atrium with nothing but a fireplace and sunken soaking tub for skywatching.
“It's an awesome place when it's really raining,” said Buck, who has a fascination with the Gothic, not just architecturally, but literarily. She can't wait for summer to end and the dark and stormy nights to descend.
“I can see the sky and the stars and the rain through the roof,” said Buck, who grew up in New Mexico, “where storms are spectacular.”
The house proved a challenge on multiple fronts for architect Marilyn Standley and the building and engineering team from Leff Construction.
The 775-acre hilltop acreage offered exquisite views. But the remote site is subject to extended power outages and this house would be the last residence to be restored. At the same time, Buck wanted to build a house that was “deep green,” being as energy efficient as possible while also incorporating sustainable materials.
“What I thought was particularly interesting about the challenge of designing and building this house was that a luxury home, by its very definition, could not be green, just because of the size,” said Dave Leff, whose Sebastopol construction company was building “green” before there was a word for it.
Simply using healthy and sustainable products like safer paints, sustainably harvested lumber, a lot of recycled materials and structural integrated panels that are ultra-insulated wouldn't be enough with a 3,500-square-foot home. Buck also wanted seven fireplaces, but wood-burning restrictions required the use of propane to fuel several of them, making it difficult to achieve a “zero net” energy use.
So Leff and Standley worked with a team of sub-contractors and consultants to create a highly complex series of systems to control heating, cooling, power and lighting, all inter-tied and capable of being controlled on-site or remotely with an iPad or iPhone.
That means Buck, who manages her many properties as well as a family trust (her great-aunt was the late Marin philanthropist Beryl Buck), can turn down the lights even from her bathtub.
The $4.5 million house is close to being energy self-sufficient, thanks to a photovoltaic system with a battery backup system and a propane-fired generator.
Leff said the house features a really innovative and green heating system, using hot water heated by a solar-assisted boiler fed by pellets made from recycled wood waste products and pumped through a coil. Air is blown over the coil and then distributed through the house through a conventional duct system, he explained.
The brain of the system monitors inside and outside temperatures and air pressure to decide which fans need to be running and which aspect of the system to employ.
“This house is smarter than I am. I'm still figuring out the switches,” says Buck, who switched from a Dell computer to a Mac to control her home.
The whole process required careful coordination and precision to integrate all of the systems, resulting in a house that won't go cold and dark when the power lines go down, as they frequently do, and yet will consume minimal power. For their efforts, the project was recognized with a Design Excellence Award for use of innovative technology by Residential Design+Build magazine.
Buck wanted to capture the feeling of being outside while staying snugly inside. All of the windows are triple glazed with an insulation value of R-9. A typical window is R-2.
She said she loves her top-of-the-world location, above the fog. Wild weather just reminds her of her native New Mexico.
“I really don't want to be a big footprint here,” she said. “I'm a great believer that we really should appreciate this planet we live on, otherwise one of these days she's going to shake us off like a bunch of fleas.”