Tucked among the windswept grasses of Coastal California’s storied Sea Ranch community are dozens of poetic and earthy homes designed by Obie Bowman, FAIA. He has designed houses there and elsewhere in Northern California and Oregon for nearly 50 years, establishing a lasting legacy of sustainable, sculptural, and sensuous residential architecture. His buildings are highly personal and original, and deeply reflective of their owners and their settings. It’s no wonder he’s a local hero to all who love the natural world and wish to immerse themselves in its bounty. Each house explores anew how manmade materials, natural elements, human beings, and the landscape might coexist in a gentle, artful, and exciting way.
Don’t be surprised to find whole tree trunks as structural columns in an Obie house, or a kitchen clad in corrugated metal, or even a shower wrapped in giant boulders and topped with a glass roof. Passive heating and cooling are baked in, so to speak, with solar chimneys at the center of the building. Sometimes you’ll find a house buttressed from coastal winds by giant logs, or seemingly bermed into a meadow and covered in sod. Nature enters Obie’s buildings at every opportunity and his buildings, in turn, make majesty of the interaction.
His houses are not for everyone, to be sure. They are not for the faint of heart—those who wish to play it safe and build something that appeals to the masses. More often than not, they are also second homes—weekend houses in wine country, vacation houses by the seaside. As such, they can take liberties with program and execution—they are frequently an expression of the clients’ real selves, or their wished-for better selves. They can have an element of fantasy and whimsy, and a hefty dose of exuberance. Obie’s houses exhort their occupants to engage in the immediate world around them; they are not a passive backdrop for life, they are full-fledged participants in those lives. No two are alike, because no two clients and no two sites are alike either. Each prompts a unique and specific response that rises above adherence to any particular style of architecture.
“I have a lot of drive in me to find better solutions to the things that we’re doing,” says Obie. “I push myself and my office hard. We are dedicated to doing thoughtful work.” The office is very busy these days, so the push and pace are a bit exhausting. Although he has always had invaluable help from his wife, Helena, who serves as his office manager, he’s having a hard time finding architects to add to the team after downsizing during the recession. “It’s my biggest challenge. And every architect is in the same situation.”
Fire rebuilds and renovations are part of the pipeline, certainly, but the booming economy in the San Francisco Bay Area is also spurring demand for new weekend escapes and full-time homes away from the city. When the housing market is confident, there’s more interest in inventive architecture like Obie’s. He knows this period could be fleeting, so he feels pressure to seize what opportunities he can. The downturn of 10 years ago is still painfully fresh in his mind. “The worst part was being an architect without having any architecture to do,” he recalls. “It was very difficult and stressful. So it’s difficult for me now to turn anything way.”
Still, the quality of work is as compelling as ever. Recent projects include a striking new house on a hillside in Sausalito. The Cope Residence embraces its dramatic bay views with huge canted windows, reminiscent of a ship’s bridge. “The area is so foggy and cool. After morning, the sun is gone behind the hill, casting the site in shade from 11 a.m. on,” he explains. The best panorama is to the east, so those canted windows not only showcase bay and city vistas, they also prolong the amount of daylighting that penetrates the building.
On hot, sunny days, two “ventilation chimneys” usher heat up and out of the building with the aid of low-speed fans. “You don’t see the technique used that much anymore,” says Obie, “but it’s very effective. Joe Esherick had a skylight that opened for cooling his house, and it was a great idea.” An earthen roof also cools the building, while allowing it to meld with the hillside. Substantial retaining walls were necessary to provide fire truck access and turn-around clearance. Ultimately, Obie says, he really only had one area to place the footprint of the 4,000-square-foot house and 700-square-foot garage on the site.
There’s plenty of corrugated metal inside and outside the house, and lots of warm woodwork and exposed structure—all hallmarks of Obie’s work. “I really like the contrast and collaboration between our manmade materials and those that are completely natural—that range of materials is very interesting to me,” he says.
Obie’s palette is also on view in the recent Dover Guest House in Jackson County, Oregon, which began life as a corrugated metal utility building. The building retains its metal cladding, but is reworked to include two bedrooms, a living area, and a kitchen. The interiors are as rich and detailed as the exterior is humble—woods, metals, and concrete blend into robust, articulated spaces. Glass garage doors raise to connect the interiors visually and physically with the outdoors. “It is our intent not to adhere to any specific style or look, but to be compositionally inclusive with a variety of elements orchestrated into a single work,” he writes in his project description.
He puts it to us this way, “The idea, as we developed it: was we were just going to respond to things we needed to solve, without thinking they needed an aesthetic umbrella. We wanted to let them be a variety of things—contemporary mixed with heirloom and artifact. And we did that. When you look at it, it could look like a hodgepodge, but to experience it was rich and positive. That interests me more than belonging to any group or school.”
Obie arrived at Sea Ranch nearly 50 years ago, after escaping the density and traffic of Los Angeles. In Southern California, he had been designing regional shopping centers surrounded by parking lots—work he now calls “very disturbing”—and would take nature bathing excursions to the countryside with Helena whenever they could. Finally, it occurred to them that they should relocate to the countryside for good, and they headed up to Northern California.
Obie’s first Sea Ranch commission was the now-famous Walk-In Cabins of 1972, a cluster of 15 simple, 600-square-foot hillside houses accessed by trails from a remote central parking lot. They were clad in redwood and oriented toward wooded and water views. Skylights brought additional natural light into the loft bedroom and central living area, and rafters were left exposed in the interior. They were the tiny houses of their day, intended as space-efficient, affordable entry points to the idyllic, almost utopian Sea Ranch community.
Obie went on to larger, more ambitious house commissions at Sea Ranch. One of his personal favorites is the 1987 Brunsell House, an earthen roofed building that disappears into its site. The house balances multiple opposing forces and concerns, ultimately creating an inspired family dwelling that preserves view corridors for neighbors to the rear of the site. Says Obie, “This is one house where I got it together as an architect—the site, the program plan, the budget, the contractor, and the issues with the design committee. There were so many things for a young architect to struggle with and fall flat on my face with, but I took a whole leap forward. It still has a special place in my heart.”
Despite such personal and professional successes over the years, Obie says he’s never gotten the big, lavish custom home projects. “None of our projects has been very large or high end, but they’ve had decent budgets and great clients,” he says. Perhaps he stayed at Sea Ranch too long before moving his office to Healdsburg 25 years ago, he muses.
He would like to do more urban or suburban houses, as well. “Most of our projects are in a natural setting, and I have an instant response to those,” he explains. “I can size them up in five minutes—the value of the breezes, the angles of trees. I know I’m going to try to tailor what we do to the slope of the land, and I know quickly, conceptually how the house will be most comfortable in that setting. But there are similar challenges in urban work—how to harness the sunlight and breezes and create privacy from the neighbors.”
It’s clear Obie has much architecture left to do, and the creative energy to do it with. But even if those big commissions and urban houses don’t come his way, he’s happy with the work that does. Says our local hero, “The projects that come to me have a kind of poetry and earthiness I’m probably best suited for.”
Obie G. Bowman Architect, FAIA
[Project information provided by the firm; photography: Obie G. Bowman, FAIA, except where noted]
Cope Residence, Sausalito, California, 2016
This hillside residence sits on a very steep, constrained, and visually sensitive lot at the edge of the open space at the Marin headlands just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Summer fog is common, but on clear days there are panoramic views of Tiburon to the north, the entire expanse of San Francisco Bay to the east, and the city to the south. Substantial retaining and support walls were necessary for vehicle access and fire engine turn around requirements and combined to essentially determine the location and footprint of the house.
The three levels of the 4000 SF house/770 SF garage step down the hillside approximating the natural slope. The garage, living areas, and master bedroom are on the entry level with kids’ bedrooms and family room on the lower level and two offices on the upper most level. Predominant orientation is easterly requiring a strategy to prolong the amount of direct sunlight reaching the interior. Sloping much of the glazing back overhead to capture noon and early afternoon direct sunlight resulted in chamfered forms which help the house visually connect with the site as do the flat earth covered roofs. Living/dining/kitchen backlighting is provided via a long narrow skylight above a westerly reflecting wall of corrugated sheet metal and two ventilation chimneys bleed off excess heat from the interior.
DOVER GUEST HOUSE, Jackson County, Oregon, 2015
An existing metal clad garage and storage barn is remodeled to serve as a combination guest house, office, and shop. The central guest space (sitting, dining, kitchen) opens out both north and south through existing garage door openings which are newly fitted with interior glass roll up doors. The existing solid roll up doors are moved to the exterior where they provide privacy, sun control, and fire protection. The east and west walls are continuous library shelving curved to mitigate the existing awkwardly proportioned orthogonal volume.
The kitchen consists of a large island with pantry, dish washing, and ovens placed out of sight to either side. A spiral stair leads to a perforated sheet metal bridge connecting the upper east and west portions of the building. Landings at each end open to bedrooms and a bathroom and are/will be embellished with cultural artifacts skylit through an aluminum egg crate diffuser.
It is our intent not to adhere to any specific style or look, but to be compositionally inclusive with a variety of elements orchestrated into a single work. A wood burning fireplace and a TV concealed behind a sliding door above are integrated with the shelving, furnishings are unabashedly simple, and collected artifacts provide accents and points of focus. Finishes include a sanded and sealed concrete lower floor, waxed steel fireplace, bridge, and stairs, granite and stainless steel kitchen counters, and Douglas fir ceilings, upper floor, and millwork.
BOWMAN STUDIO and HOUSE, Dry Creek Valley, California, 2009-
My goal has always been to have a small studio in a natural setting where we could focus on creating a limited number of carefully crafted projects. Our studio and house are on 50 acres of woodland with a meadow bordering Dutcher Creek. The house is placed on the north side of a small draw where it gets plenty of sunshine and the studio is placed on the south side of the draw where the light is more even throughout the day. At some point during the design it was decided to span over the draw and combine the two functions into a single long plan.
The studio portion was built first in order to help generate income to build the house portion which is now well underway. The construction includes steel wide flange beams spanning the draw and a timber skeleton with 2×8 T&G decking spanning between horizontal girts to make both roof and wall surfaces. The exterior is finished with redwood boards on the long spine walls and corrugated sheet metal on all roofs and the lean-to walls.
JOHNSON HOUSE, Healdsburg, California, 2011
This 2,831 SF house sits at the edge of a small clearing on 10 acres of northerly sloping conifer and hardwood forest above Dry Creek Valley. Winter sun angles influenced the placement and form of the house with its main spaces facing northerly views while capturing filtered sun light through south wall clerestories. This full length feature-wall also incorporates pantry and storage areas, window seat, shelving, and art display.
The primary structural system is painted steel wide flanges with Douglas fir ceiling beams and structural decking to insure against major damage from falling trees and widow makers. Three terraces extend living space to the exterior and the wide flanges easily allow for cantilevered roofs at each end with openings to visually connect with the sky and forest canopy above.
The perpendicular utility wing of the house extends back into the hillside and includes a mechanical room, office, garage and animal care room, all naturally lit by a continuous roof monitor. The entry is a projected concrete element set off against exterior roofs and walls of sheet metal. In addition to steel and Douglas fir, other interior materials include concrete fireplaces, painted gypsum board walls, and maple doors, windows, and millwork.
SONOMA COAST HOUSE COMPLETE MAKEOVER, The Sea Ranch, California, 2001
Sonoma Coast House was a 3,800 SF residence originally constructed in 1971 and haphazardly remodeled over the years into a conglomeration of level changes, multiple stairways, and light starved awkward rooms (white walls on plans). The site is a bluff top lot overlooking a small picturesque cove below. The new construction (black walls on plans) concentrates on opening up interior spaces to one another, as well as to the surrounding light and trees. Ventilation chimneys are used to bleed off summer heat build-up from the extensive southwesterly glazing, a concern for vacation houses that can sometimes go weeks at a time without being occupied (the local design committee all but prohibits roof overhangs).
The original house treated the lot as little more than a placemat, with very little interaction with any site amenities. One now approaches the house via a new meandering stone path passing beneath the boughs of a magnificent old Monterey Pine, and arriving at a massive redwood and concrete trellis designed to support Giant Honeysuckles. The entry space between the kitchen and dining room descends to a split function living room: fireplace and television to the right, and a new glazed octagonal conversation area to the left. Framed with timber girts and debarked Douglas fir log columns, the new tower-like octagon accepts sun deep into the house, visually connects the interior with an adjacent large Monterey Cypress, and affords enhanced vistas for kitchen and dining spaces. The dining room also looks back to the northeast through an exposed braced frame and sloped glazing to the old Monterey Pine and coastal hills beyond.
Although only 850 SF were added to the original footprint, the interior is now completely reworked functionally and structurally, and a new recreation level has been added beneath the ground floor. Existing battered walls are retained, braced, added to, and covered with standing seam copper cladding. Exterior vertical walls are redwood, all interior wood is Douglas fir, and all materials inside and out are left unfinished to age and weather naturally.
OREGON COAST HOUSE, Gold Beach, Oregon, 2000
This 1,860 SF vacation house near Gold Beach can experience wind speeds of up to 90 mph. The triangular structure points its prow-like nose out to sea and grabs ahold of its site with an exoskeleton of Port Orford cedar logs, inspired by the driftwood logs and debris found along the rocky shoreline. These buttresses resist all lateral loads and negate the need for view blocking shear walls.
The three main parts are: a house placed to capture views both up and down the coastline, a free standing garage placed to help block prevailing spring and summer winds, and a large-scaled wall placed to form a courtyard while visually screening distant neighbors to the east. A bleacher-like arrangement of steps leads up to a flat roof on the garage that can be used as an elevated viewing platform on calm days. 1×6 cedar slats over cedar plywood on the building walls allow for seasonal expansion and contraction without noticeable variation in the spacing.
The hypotenuse of the triangular living area is constructed of exposed 2x framing serving as a library wall including industrial lighting and a portable rolling ladder. Large sliding wall panels allow the bedrooms to open up to the living area for spatial expansion as well as increased ocean views. The panels are generic cement board stained with common garden fertilizers and set in steel frames sealed with melted bees wax.
Cantilevered out towards the ocean is an elevated loft accessed via the portable ladder. Excessive heat gain is controlled with tinted recessed glazing, interior shades, and a passive ventilation chimney located at the apex of the loft. The glass walls are connected to the exoskeleton with threaded pipe unions that can be expanded (by unscrewing) to keep the walls plumb as the logs shrink over time.
PINS SUR MER, Point Arena, California 1998
Pins Sur Mer is a 1,500 SF vacation house on the bluffs overlooking Schooner Gulch and Bowling Ball Beach in Mendocino County. The house is set amongst a grove of Bishop Pines and the owners requested covered sitting porches on at least two sides. This raised concerns about the amount and quality of interior natural light in this often foggy and overcast environment. To achieve a compact footprint to minimize tree removal the interior spaces are arranged around a high, centrally skylit entry surrounded by clerestory interior openings allowing backlighting for every room.
The entry is demarked by four huge pine columns and is also the cultural center, containing an upright piano and a wall of bookshelves, including a rolling library ladder. The floors are recycled antique oak and cut limestone, walls are painted gypsum board, ceilings are Douglas fir beams and decking, cabinets are VGDF, Rumford fireplaces are natural colored plaster, and windows are pine with factory painted aluminum cladding.
Exterior materials are rough 1×12 redwood board vertical siding and painted corrugated metal roofing. A separate garage/shop/utility structure helps to form a parking courtyard and acts as a screen between Highway 1 and the house.
TOM & KARIN’S PLACE, The Sea Ranch, California, 1994
This vacation house is located on a lot forested with pine, tan oak, madrone, redwood and Douglas fir, and with a filtered ocean view to the west. A primary concern was to minimize physical and visual impact on the site and to preserve, even enhance, the sense of connectedness with the forest.
The building is sited in deference to surrounding trees, especially the forest climax species, redwood and Douglas fir. A five level vertically developed plan minimizes the building’s footprint and responds to its place in the trees, providing direct experience of the character changes that occur between forest floor duff and upper canopy. A long, narrow plan with expanses of opposing floor to ceiling glass links the exterior ambiance to the interior and the use of steeply sloped glazing at the living, dining, and bedrooms provides views directly up into the surrounding boughs.
The central building mass is covered with black composition shingles to de-emphasize itself and better frame the light and forest viewed through the narrow building. Five contrasting, smaller scaled elements (four lean-tos and a spa deck) are covered entirely with wood and/or glass, and those closest to trees are supported on hand dug concrete piers to minimize root destruction.
Interior levels interface with a continuous stairway carefully constructed of exposed stud blocking and framing to provide continuous book/display spaces. The fifth and highest level is an open loft which cantilevers into the main space where it can either partake of the general activity or obtain a bit of intimacy by pulling closed a fabric curtain. All interior wood is Douglas fir, all wall surfaces are painted gypsum board, and all exposed structural hardware and the fireplace facing are galvanized steel.
CASE KITCHEN AND BATH, Kentfield, California, 1992
The existing house sits on an acre of land and is a notable example of 1950’s contemporary post and beam construction. Years earlier we remodeled the kitchen and dining areas to facilitate family interaction. The owners now wished to remodel the master bedroom/bath area to achieve greater exchange with their surroundings as well as greater enjoyment of the daily bathing/bedding ritual.
The existing bathroom is removed to enlarge the bedroom and 430 SF are added to accommodate a new, enlarged bathroom. The new floor is set down at ground level to preserve and allow extension of the existing long roof line which is a dominant feature of the house. A sunken spa is located beyond the end of the addition.
The bathroom elements are arranged around a central open shower which can be metaphorically interpreted as an ideological composition of the four Aristotelian elements: fire, earth, air and water; and the corresponding four fundamental sensual qualities: hot, cold, dry, and wet.
Fire (hot and dry): A two-sided fireplace serves both bedroom and bathroom and allows the unique sensual experience of fire and water simultaneously.
Earth (dry and cold): Native boulders from a local quarry define the shower and spa realms while linking inside and outside.
Air (hot and wet): Large, vaulted skylights relieve the low ceilings, flood the interiors with light and afford views up into extensive pine boughs above.
Water (wet and cold): Dual shower heads dropping down from the skylight are a mechanical metaphor for rain from above.
BRUNSELL HOUSE (AKA OBIE HOUSE), The Sea Ranch, California, 1987
The surrounding landscape consists of connected meadows sandwiched between coastal hills and ocean bluffs with cold northerly winds blowing throughout the spring and summer. The corner lot sits near the bluff and is in the view shed of numerous other houses sitting behind and at slightly higher elevations.
The program called for a weekend/retirement house with separate guest and master bedroom wings meeting at a common area for socialization. The heart of this area is the large kitchen island which always acts as a vital part, if not the focus, of social activities.
The house responds to the character of the landscape while considering its effect on the community: It strives for visual harmony with the sweep of the coastal hills, is an exemplary low key neighbor, and is attuned to the natural forces acting upon it. The building form is a wind foil deflecting cold air up and away from the partially sunken southerly deck. The meadow displaced by the building footprint has been replaced with an earth covered roof: the house is part of the meadow and the meadow is part of the house.
The house uses solar space and water heating, natural ventilation, and natural lighting, with a radiant floor heat backup system. Excess roof water percolates back into the ground as does much of the water falling on the gravel driveway and parking court. Structural columns were cut from dead Eucalyptus trees, fireplace brick chunks were found in a refuse grog pile, and predominantly natural materials were used throughout.
The Walk-In Cabins, The Sea Ranch, California, 1972
(Photos: Merg Ross)
This development of fifteen “walk-in” cabins on a rugged forested hillside was guided by the primary concern for minimizing the visual and physical impact on the land. Coupled with this concern was the developer’s desire to provide retreats that might increase one’s experience of the natural environment, yet remain within the limits of good marketability.
Since the forest and its aesthetic qualities would have been severely damaged by standard streets and subdivision, automobiles were restricted to a single parking area. Access occurs by means of a series of foot trails and a limited use/emergency road. Furthermore, the lots (2000 sq. ft.) were made just large enough to accommodate the cabins, leaving nearly 90% of the land in perpetual natural reserve.
The architectural problem was how to provide a small (600 sq. ft.) low cost design that would lend itself to a variety of land slopes and view orientations, and sit comfortably when seen either alone or in groups. The solution is a square plan, two story structure that maximizes the volume enclosed relative to exterior wall area, and is very flexible for siting, thus requiring minimal tree removal. The simple, unpretentious forms are covered with natural redwood boards and shingles, helping the cabins recede congenially into their setting.
Entry is through a sliding barn door into a single large space. Behind the rear wall is the kitchen, bath, stairs, and storage areas. The open bedroom gains privacy from its location above these spaces, and a pair of bunk spaces open off the stairway. Since low light levels are common to the north coast forests, a pair of clear skylights are placed over the bedroom, allowing filtered light to fall into the bedroom and over and through the open guardrail to the main space below. The skylights also complement the window views with glimpses of the soaring redwoods above. The ceilings have exposed rafters and the walls are rough sawn Douglas fir plywood throughout.