Crook, cup, bow, twist. Many are the ways in which sawn lumber resists our plans for it. And that independence isn’t exclusive to wood. Steel rusts; concrete weathers; water seeks its own path. Every custom home represents an effort to assert control over these natural phenomena. But what if a house were designed instead to anticipate and accommodate the essential nature of its materials, its site, its microclimate, even its occupants?

That was the question San Francisco-based architect Neal Schwartz asked. The answer is Crook | Cup | Bow | Twist, a secluded family retreat in rural Northern California that turns the paradigm of control on its head. Produced in collaboration with Cotati, Calif.-based custom builder Bruce Hammond, the house embraces weather, time, and change, bending with the forces of nature to minimize environmental impact and heighten its owners’ experience of the landscape.

Counterintuitive siting deepens connection with the land.
The hilly 40-acre site, formerly a horse-boarding ranch, offered a number of potential building locations. “And like every architect, I tramped up to the top of the hill,” Schwartz says. “But I realized that there could be power in staying low and nestling the base of the hill.” The owners, whose primary residence is in San Francisco, built this weekend house in part to get their young children outdoors, he says, and preserving the high ground as a destination would serve that purpose.

Building in the valley also allowed Schwartz and Hammond to incorporate the house into a program of “re-naturalizing” the site. Hammond says, “We took down an existing house, an old barn, and a rotting-away mobile home. There was a pretty horrible site scar in the backyard,” he adds. “A riding arena had been cut into the slope. We did a lot of site repair in that area,” largely to reestablish the original topography and drainage pattern.

The plan promotes active outdoor living.
One of the ranch’s positive features was a series of low wooden bridges across a seasonal watercourse. Schwartz extended the theme with a bridge of wood and Cor-ten steel that leads directly to the entry of the main house (a small guest house and a pool complete the ensemble). “It’s directly on-axis with the hill,” he says, “and as you enter the main space, the crest of the hill emerges.”

The layout of the main house--a shallow V that follows the site’s topography--creates a natural separation between public and private zones. It also plays subtly on human nature to foster engagement with the site. “It makes you inquisitive about what’s around the corner,” explains Schwartz, who aligned the house’s interior circulation with paths into the landscape. “The plan propels physical movement,” he adds. As much as to create comfort indoors, “the idea was to get you out of the house.”

Environmental awareness extends over the horizon.
“We let the house emerge from observations about the site,” Schwartz says, but its structure, systems, and construction details also address issues of global import. Active and passive solar energy systems combine with high-performance glazing and an air-source heat pump to minimize the compound’s carbon footprint. Hammond used a low-embodied energy concrete mix.

All the framing lumber used in the house is FSC certified, and a significant amount of that was supplanted by a roof comprised primarily of structural insulating panels. Protected by Cor-ten steel panels over an eave-to-ridge ventilation space and a layer of membrane roofing, the innovative roof assembly resembles a rainscreen wall system turned on its side.

Weathering is integral to the design.
The spirit of the house is perhaps best exemplified by its namesake: a sun screen Schwartz designed to maximize the natural movement of its wood components. To that end, he says, “the search became not for the most stable wood, but the least stable.” After some on-site testing, that distinction went to green-sawn eucalyptus, an invasive species that Schwartz describes as “kind of a throwaway wood.” Hammond built a light steel framework, onto which he attached the 5/8-inch thick strips with loose pin connections.

As the green wood dried, it performed exactly as expected, bleaching and warping into a gray skein that softens the house’s otherwise disciplined geometry. And like the rusting steel of the roof, it will continue to change with time. “We wanted [the exterior] to be very low maintenance,” Schwartz says. “The whole palette of materials is meant to weather and look better and better.”

Bruce Snider is a senior contributing editor to Custom Home.

Project Credits: Builder: Hammond & Co., Penngrove, Calif.; Architect: Schwartz and Architecture, San Francisco; Living space: 3,500 square feet (main house), 750 square feet (guest house); Site: 40 acres; Construction cost: Withheld; Photographer: Bruce Damonte; Bathroom plumbing fixtures: Kaldewei, Kallista, Kohler, Toto; Bathroom plumbing fittings: Elkay, Hansgrohe; Countertops: Caesarstone, IceStone; Dishwasher: Miele; Fireplace: Isokern; Freezer and refrigerator: Sub-Zero; Garbage disposal: InSinkErator; Hardware: Emtek; HVAC equipment: Daiken, Nest; Lighting fixtures: Bartco, B-K Lighting, Halo, Hunza, Juno, Leucos, Lightolier, USAI Lighting, Vibia; Oven: Wolf; Paints/stains: Benjamin Moore, Cabot Stain; Patio doors and windows: Loewen; Solar energy system: Heliodyne, Sharp

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