A Native Plant Species Inspires a Home by Schwartz and Architecture

Sonoma Valley HomeWhen architect Neal Schwartz and his team first visited their client’s site in the foothills of Sonoma Valley, they entered an otherworldly realm. Driving up the steep, winding road, they were greeted by native oaks covered in a gauzy drapery of pale green Spanish moss, or lace lichen. “These veils of lichen add a sense of enclosure, like curtains hanging around you,” says Schwartz. Far from wanting to disrupt this natural element, he took it as inspiration for the design of a 3,500-square-foot family retreat, which will begin construction this summer.

Schwartz and Architecture's renderingLace lichen is a symbiotic organism that does not harm the trees on which it grows on. In fact, it is very sensitive to air pollution and its presence is a sign of environmental health. Fascinated by its intensely porous nature, Schwartz looked for ways to achieve that sense of openness in the home’s architecture: The roof’s deep overhangs morph into trellises through which the sun casts dappled light onto the ground below—a poetic representation of how light filters through lichen. The master suite has a small triangular courtyard that brings light deeper into the space. And a row of pivoting windows along the corridor of the bedroom wing creates the sense of stepping into a semi-enclosed porch, blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space. 

Lichen grows only where there is enough light and water, migrating to the most fortuitous locations. Likewise, the home’s T-shaped form was carefully adapted to the site. Set in a natural clearing, its long side—the bedroom wing overlooking the pool—is oriented toward the views of Sonoma Mountain, while the shorter side looks onto a cluster of oak trees.

“There was a whole ecosystem in operation before we got here,” says Schwartz. “We tried to see how we could insert the architecture into that system. We used the building as a way to intensify the experience
of nature.”         

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of San Francisco Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Behind the Veil.