Tree-tops at eye-level, views as far as San Francisco Bay, the quiet of the Sonoma countryside – this family had all the right ingredients to build their own private spa retreat, with the help of the award-winning firm Aidlin Darling Design.
Sonoma is a historically significant city in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, California, United States. Here, above the vineyards and historic buildings, a once-neglected parcel of land has been brought back to lush life. The Sonoma Retreat was created as an addition for a South African family now living in San Francisco.
The existing family home is a rammed earth house overlooking a formerly-overgrown hillside. Award-winning architectural firm Aidlin Darling Design was commissioned to take on the ambitious task of creating a private getaway on the site. Joshua Aidlin and David Darling’s designs are always based on a strong focus on nature and this project was no exception.
Within a small section of the property, the family wanted to create an outdoor kitchen and dining area, a solar heated swimming pool and spa, Croquet and Bocce courts and a hidden exercise/meditation pavilion. This might seem like a lot of room, but on the sloping site, it was easily achieved using terraces, steps and multiple levels.
The path from the house down to the pool moves around a cascade of terraces defined by concrete and stacked stone walls. Below the new outdoor dining room, concrete benches overlooking the croquet court are built into the hillside to add further structure to the vegetation and the meandering paths.
The Meditation and Exercise pavilion is hidden in a grove of mature trees. The entry to this is framed by two curved earthen walls, embedding the ideas of “privacy, safety and refuge” which are so crucial to a space like this.
The idea of having a refuge away from the main house is an excellent one – disconnecting oneself from the everydayness makes one more relaxed. “The design of the pavilion seeks to foster self discovery not only by creating a sense of privacy through its many layers, but once inhabited, aspires to dissolve away leaving the inhabitant and nature to become reacquainted,” say the architects. The pavilion includes a meditation/exercise/yoga studio with adjacent steam rooms, changing rooms, bathroom, refreshment bar, a private sundeck and an outdoor shower.
The building itself is a collection of simple rustic cedar boxes that stand out against the lush Californian landscape. The ‘boxes’ in turn are cradled by the curved retaining walls, which are inspired by the idea of an African “boma” or enclosure.
The pool, heated spa and shade trellis convert into gathering grounds for family parties. The heated spa is hidden on the lower pool deck behind a screen of Mexican Sage and Fountain Grass, offering additional privacy while still leaving the stunning views of the landscape unhampered.
The outdoor kitchen leads to an outdoor dining room which seems to be suspended over the landscape. The dining and side tables were custom-designed by Aidlin Darling, whose furniture designs are also well-known.
A trellis with concrete columns and a roof of thin galvanised pipes frames the dining area and the surrounding scenery beyond. At night, beehive-shaped lights from Jessica Bodner illuminate the area.
Aidlin Darling are devoted to using the right kind of sustainable landscaping for their clients. All the plants in this project are drought tolerant. While working on the building, care was taken to work with the existing trees and use them for shade where possible.
The pavilion’s roof makes the most of the Californian sun by providing warmth in winter and shade in the summer. In good weather, the entire south and east facade of the pavilion slide away and completely retract into the walls – what a magnificent way to bring the outdoors inside.
The designers take sustainability seriously and almost all of the finished material used within the retreat is reclaimed, including the stone basins in the steam room which were carved from larger pieces of reclaimed limestone. The pool is heated by a solar hydronic system and hidden solar panels provide much of the building’s electric needs.
The Sonoma Retreat received the 2013 Residential Design Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. One of the jury members had this to say: “It has that unique Sonoma quality – very organic, elegant and simple.” And really, that’s all you need to have a refuge within your home.
Text By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Photographs Courtesy Paul Baird, Bruce Damonte, Marion Brenner and Chris Gramly