Tour a Cool Eco-Conscious Los Altos Hills Home

Architect Noel Cross and landscape firm Strata Landscape Architecture created a eco-friendly home for their passionate clients.High in the Los Altos Hills overlooking Silicon Valley, the property Eric Evans shares with his wife, Cheryl Breetwor, has virtually no carbon footprint. But the opposite was true when they acquired it a few years ago. Then, a small, ramshackle house competed with felled trees, mounds of used tires and the charcoal remains of a burned-out barn. Once they assumed ownership, Evans, a contractor with an artist’s vision, donated the house, board by board, to Habitat for Humanity and then embarked on the laborious task of uncovering a series of buried equestrian trails he’d spotted on a decades-old aerial map.

Meanwhile Breetwor, a master gardener, spent days wrangling poison oak vines and hacking back overgrown blackberry thatches. “Clearing out all the debris seemed to fit into our dream of living self-sustainably,” says Evans, expressing the train of thought that led them to commission architect Noel Cross to create an “über green” estate.

The sizable house Cross designed for them treads lightly on the land and boasts a net-zero energy consumption thanks to its geothermal and solar systems. Settled into the hillside where the winter winds leave it unscathed, its mass is diminished and it remains private from neighbors. When Dustin Moore of Strata Landscape Architecture joined the project, he expanded on the environmental program by converting the few roofs that weren’t needed for photovoltaic arrays into living gardens. Planted with luscious succulents and Carex pansa, a durable sedge from the sand dunes of Monterey, they provide insulation, allow structures to unify with their setting and cleanse rainwater of any pollutants.

“We set out to be as low maintenance and water-wise as possible,” says Moore, who preserved several mature oaks and selected plants for their hardiness and drought tolerance. He transformed more than three acres into borders, beds and outdoor living “rooms,” each one with a distinct personality depending on whether it sits in the sun or shade, encloses a seating arrangement or sidles up to an infinity-edge pool or a fire pit. Purple, as a primary flower color, crops up in sages, penstemon, Pride of Madeira and California wild lilac. Lined up in a row of oversized pots or contained by limestone or rammed earth walls, sweepings of stalky grasses exude a restrained drama. Swaths of delicate, silvery green heathers read as rhythmic, textural geometry and conjure up images of prairies and meadows.

Diverted rainfall now irrigates an orchard where apples, apricots, cherries, ficus, nectarines, peaches, persimmons and pomegranates thrive. In addition to the orchard, Breetwor tends a raised-bed, rooftop garden where armloads of flowers reseed themselves every year. Nearby, a convenient dumbwaiter shuttles the seasonal cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, from kumquats to kale, down to the kitchen where Breetwor serves up dressing-free salads and concocts curds, jellies and marmalades, and a renowned Limoncello.

Needless to say, it’s a chemical-free domain where birds police pests and feast on aphids. In a prime spot, a chicken coop accommodates a handful of dapper black sex-links, Egyptian Fayoumis and red barred-rock cochins. Then there are the occupants of two beehives who pollinate all the edibles and florals. Breetwor shares their large yield of honey with friends and also administers it to the family’s two golden retrievers to keep their allergies at bay. “We’re healing the land,” she says, “and it’s healing us.”

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Living Landscape.