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Spring 2010

A Family Playground

A spacious Sonoma County pool house offers a weekend escape.

By Joan Chatfield-Taylor

When a Marin County couple bought several acres of meadowland in Sonoma County a few years back, their plan was straightforward. They would remodel the existing ranch house on the property and turn a shed into a pool house. With this in mind, they began digging the pool.

Then, reality struck. After discussions with interior designer Michelle Wempe, whose East Bay firm, Zumaooh, also provides architectural expertise, they realized that the house could not be revised to meet the family’s needs. As parents of three lively young children, they did not want to wait until a new house was finished to take advantage of their country retreat.

So, they came up with a new plan, one that at first seemed counterintuitive. Instead of starting with the house, they decided to finish the pool and transform the shed, equipping it with facilities for cooking and entertaining.

This way, they could begin using the property sooner rather than later. It would become their weekend playground—a place for the kids to spend the day jumping in and out of the water, and for the parents to host guests for an outdoor lunch or dinner. As the crow flies, the Sonoma property isn’t a long distance from their home in Marin, but it provides a dramatic change from suburb to real country.

The pool house is a clean-lined two-story assemblage of rectangles of glass, concrete, and smooth, honey-colored cedar. The ground floor can open fully to the outdoors. The living area has glass walls on both the east and west sides that can slide back, opening this interior space to the swimming pool in one direction and to a broad meadow and a protective line of trees in the other.

“One of the reasons we love Sonoma is that the changing seasons provide a living art tableau,” says the owner. “Our pool house fluidly meets its surroundings. It serves as art, even as a lens through which we view the natural art around us.”

Cooking, dining, and other entertaining take place on a generous outdoor patio covered by metal louvers that are positioned to insure that the space is always shaded, an indispensable asset on Sonoma’s burning summer days.

The outdoor kitchen is lined up against one wall of the patio and is better equipped than most indoor kitchens. An aluminum roll-down door, the kind that one sees on street-level stores at night, opens to reveal gas burners, a barbecue, and an undercounter refrigerator, which make it possible to host all kinds of events, from a child’s birthday party to leisurely adult luncheons.

Family and guests dine at the patio’s long rectangular table, which is large enough to seat 14 people. Nearby, an upholstered sofa and chairs face an outdoor fireplace that includes an electric rotisserie.

The living area is sleek and uncluttered, with most of the functional spaces, such as closets and a stacked washer and dryer, hidden behind wood-paneled doors. The rectangle motif and the minimal range of materials used in the construction give this space a feeling of order and tranquility.

The living area also offers what parents of young children need most: an indestructible space. The sofa, facing a big-screen television, was designed for the outdoors. Its robust upholstery won’t be hurt by wet bathing suits or muddy sneakers. Three leather-covered tables look like beanbags but have sturdy metal tops that lift to reveal storage space for toys.

A pleated silk light fixture, suggesting the curved form of an overturned kayak, provides a delicate contrast to all this indestructibility. On a practical level, it is a remarkably beautiful disguise for fluorescent lights.

The fluorescent bulbs are one of the building’s green features. Solar panels in the meadow heat the pool, and solar panels on the flat roof help power the house. “Green is a lot easier to do these days. It’s more accessible and more affordable, and there’s just much more information available,” says designer Wempe, adding that the planned main house will have even more environmentally friendly systems.

Groundbreaking for the new house is scheduled for next year. Thanks to the decision to build the pool house first, the family will be able to enjoy their piece of countryside even as construction proceeds.

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