It’s not automatically easy for a modern home to look good in natural surroundings—the play of industrial materials against natural vegetation and topography can be striking to the point of cartoonishness. This home, though, its well on its arid site, a west-facing hillside lot in Sunol, Calif., about 40 minutes southeast of Oakland. Designed by Emeryville, Calif.–based Swatt|Miers Architects, the home has rectilinear forms that contrast with the surrounding trees, hills, and mountains. The colors of the home’s cedar siding, ipe decking, and stucco cladding harmonize with surrounding vegetation.
This wasn’t always so. The site was gravel and dirt before landscape architect Joseph Huettl figured out a landscape program that looked good, made sense for the site, and suited the requirements that his eco-conscious clients had set forth.
The house has photovoltaic panels and its owners—who drive a Toyota Prius—wanted regional, drought-tolerant, native plants. Green, though, wasn’t the only concern. “The deer and turkeys are like an army,” Huettl says. “You can see their silhouettes as they’re coming down the ridge, eating anything they can find.” As such, the property required animal-resistant landscaping.
Satisfying the owners’ desire for truly native vegetation actually involved a bit of compromise. Those golden California hills that everyone rhapsodizes over? They’re not actually indigenous, Huettl notes; they got that way thanks to straw-colored grasses that came over with the Spaniards. “But people love that,” he acknowledges. “This wasn’t a native restoration as much as it was an idealization of the regional landscape.” Grasses native to northern California look greener, so Huettl split the difference with a combination of Atlas fescue, Mexican feather grass, Yucca (“the white flowers are a bonus”), blue oat grass, and Berkeley sedge (“grasses with golden hues,” he says). Deer don’t eat grass, though they do like perennials, shrubs, and some herbs. But they’ll pass rosemary, lavender, and yarrow right on by, and all those plantings are drought tolerant, too—not to mention pretty and fragrant.
To manage the landscaping, there’s a weather-based irrigation controller—mounted in the sun, it sends signals to another controller on the side of the house, which in turn sends a signal about how long and how intensively to water. (It varies by region, but rebatesfor irrigation controllers are becoming more common.) Rain chains manage downpours, and low-precipitation roters avoid runoff.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.