By Carolyn Weber. All 1,400-square-foot houses are not created equal. Pins Sur Mer, the 2001 project of the year, dramatically proves that point. This modest vacation home didn't need over-the-top fixtures and finishes to get the judges' attention. They found it solid, honest, and unpretentious. One judge even paid it the ultimate compliment; "It looks like a great house to live in."

The project's architect Obie Bowman grew up in Southern California's San Fernando Valley at a time when it was changing from an agricultural landscape to what he describes as "a desolate suburb." He relocated to Northern California seeking a slower pace of life and projects over which he had more control. He realized that siting buildings was the part of architecture that came most naturally to him. "I felt like I had a love for and a relationship with the natural landscape," he says. "And if there is a theme to most of my projects, that's it."

Enter Pat and Peter Clark. The couple wanted a rustic vacation home to serve as a retreat from their primary digs high atop a San Francisco condominium. They were familiar with Bowman's work and specifically chose him because they liked how his projects were sited. But before he could start sketching their new home, he needed to "understand" the location.

Situated on a high bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the parcel is both bucolic and tricky. The long, skinny tract is sandwiched tightly between a steep drop off and Highway 101, busy year round with sightseers and nature lovers. According to Bowman, major considerations for siting included the sun orientation and the prevailing wind coming down the coastline. "The siting really depends on the lay of the land, and that's what drives the design of the house," he explains.

Because of the highway, it didn't make sense to have windows on the front of the house, so the structure turns its back to the road with a 5-foot-wide by 10-foot-high commercial steel door. "It's the largest we've ever used," Bowman notes. But with no glazing and a solid, bulky door, the entry was pretty plain and needed something to give it some presence. Bowman took a 2-foot diameter redwood beam, placed it over the door and carved a gutter out of it. "I like to do things that are fairly bold and gutsy," says the architect.

The beauty of Pins Sur Mer is that it is doesn't overwhelm its special site. "I wanted to make it simple and strong, and reduce it to a few basic elements," says Bowman, who loves agricultural buildings, especially old barns. He chose rough, old-fashioned 1-by-12, tongue-in-groove redwood boards for the siding. The roof is standing-seam metal painted gray to reduce reflection. It was screwed down over plywood and is soundproof thanks to 3 Q inches of rigid insulation.

Having large windows and glass doors to maximize views was a non-negotiable on the Clarks' wish list. But they also wanted covered porches on at least two sides of the house, which seemed illogical to Bowman. "The site sticks way out and is foggy about 400 days a year," he says with a laugh. "And it's in the trees, so the last thing you need is to shade the glass even more." But the customer is always right, so he solved the dilemma with a hipped roof design including a large central skylight that floods every room in the house with plenty of sun. Putting all of this together was the most challenging aspect for builder Helmut Emke. "We used a small crane to bring in the hips of the roof and install the cupola and skylight," he says.

Photo: Tom Rider Architectural Photography

The design is as powerful on the inside as it is unassuming on the exterior. The entry goes right into the heart of the space and is anchored by four magnificent, knotty pine log pillars, which the builder also used the crane to erect. The foyer houses a small upright piano and a wall of bookshelves accessed by a rolling ladder. The floors are crafted from recycled antique oak, and all of the other wood is Douglas fir. A shallow Rumford fireplace of simple plaster in a natural gray cement color creates a glow in the living room. "The square, compact footprint just came out of working with a small house," Bowman remarks. A master bedroom and bath and guest bedroom and bath comprise the private zone, and the kitchen, living, and dining spaces overlap one another in the public zone. Plenty of windows all around frame the amazing views of the California coastline.

Category: Custom Home, Less than 3,500 Square Feet; Entrant/Architect: Obie G. Bowman, Healdsburg, Calif.; Builder: Helmut Emke Custom Builders, Gualala, Calif.