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Deep Green

Author: Richard Paul Hinkle
March, 2012 Issue

Ensconced in a half-circle of majestic native trees, the views from this prime part of Barbara Buck’s 755-acre estate are expansive and exquisite. What’s more, Buck and her construction team worked hard to make sure the house is as close to being off the grid as possible.

“It’s almost a contradiction in terms, a house this size being this green,” begins Sebastopol contractor David Leff. “Barbara [Buck] calls it ‘Gothic Lodge’ in terms of style. It has about 4,000 square feet of interior living space…and another 3,000 square feet of exterior living space!”

Buck’s new house above Cazadero is, indeed, an impressive bit of work, from inspiration to construction. “I’ve lived some of the best years of my life in Lake Tahoe and Colorado,” says the Santa Fe, New Mexico, native, “and I wanted my home to be something that came out of the earth. I grew up in New Mexico, and people there have a connectedness to the land that I admire. It’s also important, I think, that you understand this planet is a living thing.

“To my way of thinking, the planet needs a break. Don’t you get the feeling Mother Earth ought to be getting a little mad at us? She ought to be just about ready to shake us off like fleas. Think about it: There’s no place else to go. That new planet they just found out there in the solar system? How many light years is it away from us? Ha! That’s not an option. We have to do better at taking care of the one planet we have, and that’s at the core of my thinking for this house.”

The home’s setting is spectacular. Ensconced in a half-circle of majestic redwood, fir and madrone trees, the views from this prime part of her 755-acre estate are expansive and exquisite. Buck and Leff worked hard to make sure the house was as close to being off the grid as possible, both knowing that the West Sonoma County power supply—what with wind and rainstorms of ferocious impact—can be iffy at best. “That was part of it,” she acknowledges. “Another part of it was that I’d just like to have no more utility bills. Between the fish tanks and irrigation systems at my Southern California home [Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego], the utility bill is $300 per month…when nobody’s there!”

The Buck House in Cazadero—Barbara officially moved in early last month—was begun in earnest in October 2009. A former dancer, she initially remodeled an existing house on the property (where she lived while her new home was being built). “I love remodeling homes,” she says with a bubbly and obvious enthusiasm. “I walk into a house…and it talks to me. I like to make houses happy—and I’m only happy when I’m creating something new, usually from something old.”

Buck’s mother, Natalie Buck, was New Mexico’s Secretary of State—and acting-Governor the day Barbara was born in 1958—and her father was in the oil business. She spent her junior and senior year of high school at The Masters School (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.), earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Occidental College in Los Angeles (“I started out in math and science, but the calculus killed me,” she says with a muted laugh) then did one year of graduate work in biological psychology at UC Berkeley.

“I dropped out and went to work teaching dance at Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio in Pleasant Hill, then opened my own studio, California Dance Club, in San Jose. I danced with one of the top Latin dancers in the country, but what was really in my blood was remodeling houses. When I was only 18 years old, I’d already started buying old houses and fixing them up.”

Do what you love

The architect, Marilyn Standley, who worked closely with Buck to design the Cazadero home, says, “Barbara was a delight to work with. She’s done several projects in the past, and she enjoys design and construction immensely. It was easy to get swept up in her energy and enthusiasm! She knew what she wanted and was very specific about her vision. All the rock work, from the boulders moved into strategic spots around the house to the stonework at the base of the exterior walls—not to mention several fireplaces—was a big part of how Barbara saw the house rising organically out of the earth. Barbara mentioned she would be very ‘hands on’ during construction, and she's worked closely with the stone mason and the site developers to help achieve this goal.”

Born north of Boston, Mass., Standley first earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts before returning to college years later for a degree in architecture. “This was not an easy house to build,” she says with a smile. “Because of its level of complexity, we were careful about coordinating construction and structural details with Leff and Leff’s in-house structural engineer, Jamie Meacham. The conservatory was especially unique, because it was built off-site and brought in later. The dimensions were tricky and there were very tight tolerances. It required a lot of care, attention to precision and good communication. It really helped that we’ve all worked together before.”

Agreeing, Leff points to what he calls the design/build process, by which he means an intense collaboration between all design and trade professionals from the outset. “It’s a concept; it’s a process,” he says. “Everybody’s onboard from the beginning, as Marilyn suggests. We have to know and understand the constraints before we get going with the building process. There’s no point in designing something that can’t be built!”

The goateed Leff was born in Los Angeles, lived in London until age nine (his mother is British), but grew up in San Francisco. “My father went to law school at Harvard and built up his law practice in Los Angeles. We moved to England because he thought he wanted to become a psychiatrist, but we eneded up returning to the United States and he went back to the law. I went to Washington High School, college at Sonoma State University, and was accepted to law school at Boston University. It was dad’s idea that the two of us end up in a law practice together. The irony, though, is that after he retired from practicing law in 1987, he came to work in the construction business with me!”

Leff graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in psychology (with a minor in English) and was on his way to law school in Boston before deciding to stay in Sonoma County and start a construction company. He had a small landscaping business part time to pay for school. Part time carpentry work also helped and, in the end, turned out to be just the ticket. “I started a couple of businesses while I was still in school, and the combination of running my own business and the creativity involved in construction was exactly what I needed.”

Leff started Leff Construction in 1978, has taught a remodeling class at SRJC, and recently won a major remodeling award (first place in the entire house remodeling category for a project costing less than $500,000, awarded by the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry). Returning to the Buck project, Leff continues, “Barbara’s house is a real personal statement. It’s of and for Barbara. I particularly love the commitment she’s made to tie—to root—the house to the land. And there’s a strong connection between the interior and the exterior, that whole ‘hunting lodge’ motif is carried throughout the house, with its high ceilings, and bleeds seamlessly to the outside. The feel of the house, the use of materials—particularly working native stone boulders into the landscape and doing the rockwork on the exterior and in the seven fireplaces (one has a built-in pizza oven)—is a theme that’s truly successful in this work.

“It’s not just a question of being green to be ‘in,’ whatever that means. For Barbara, it’s a commitment on her part to have that intimate connection with the environment, to really be a part of the land that supports us. For as large as the house is—and it is large—there’s the notion of treading as lightly as she can. The house isn’t just planted there without intent. This is one of the most thoughtful homes I’ve ever seen.”

Comfort zone

Buck, who’s divorced and has two grown children, initially moved to Wine Country a few years ago, buying a home high on a ridge above Healdsburg. “I immediately fell in love with the community, the people. Things are a little bit more real here. But that site could be a bit on the warm side, and it was pretty windy on that exposed top of the mountain. My real estate agent, who lives in Cazadero, asked me to come look at a few possible sites there, and the one I settled on seemed to be just magnificent. God’s country. The building site is in a half circle. The views are exquisite, but the trees protect it from the elements and storms.

“My style playbook comes from pouring over architectural magazines and my inherent love of ‘hunting lodge’ comfort and feel. Like a lot of the homes in the Lake Tahoe basin. I found a blueprint in a magazine I picked up in the grocery store once, and it was just perfect. It had all those elements I like. I showed the blueprint to my architect, and she had to make some changes to get around the copyright. Plus there were some stylistic changes that needed to be made. It was a two story, and too wide, but Marilyn did a great job finding out what I wanted, and then putting that into a format that Dave could actually build. That’s sometimes a problem: You have a design that can’t easily be built.”

Buck is clearly her own person (and yes, she’s related to the Marin County Buck Trust family; founder Beryl Buck was her great aunt: “I support their programs as much as I can.”). “I’m much more comfortable up here in Wine Country, where people are much more ready to take you as you are. Living mostly near San Diego the last few years got to be a little uncomfortable. You have to be almost perfect there—teeth, boobs—I’m not young, I’m not blonde, and I’m not going under the knife for anybody! When I first moved to Rancho Santa Fe, there was still plenty of open space. Now, everything is closed in, and I had nothing in common with the folks who lived there. I’d much rather be with people who will tell you to your face if they like you…and watch your back. That’s my comfort zone.”

It was real estate agent David Millar who introduced Buck to David Leff, and the union was good. “I also like Leff’s project manager, Bruce MacDonell,” says Buck. “I saw the houses he’d built, and it was a good fit. I get along really well with Bruce, and the house he’s building for me is going to be really nice. I’m looking forward to moving from my little house in town—in the dark—to my big house on the hill and in the sun.”

Deep green

“It’s perfectly situated for solar,” notes Leff of Buck’s home. “We aimed for it to be a net zero carbon energy structure. It is, with the exception of three of the fireplaces and the kitchen stove, which are propane-fueled. All of the heating systems are non-carbon-fueled.

“A cutting-edge home, we refer to it as ‘deep green.’ The windows are triple-glazed for maximum efficiency, and the structural walls are air-tight and highly insulated with foam, R-40 in the walls and R-60 in the roof. Electricity is produced by photovoltaic solar and the heating system is fueled by a pellet-fired boiler, which uses pellets made from waste wood products. And the thermostat is über high tech: It can be accessed through the touch screen of Barbara’s iPad, fully controlling lighting and heating systems remotely.”

There are seven fireplaces in all, including one that provides heat for an all-glass conservatory. The outside living spaces feature bi-fold glass doors that really open the place up to nature. Landscaping includes permaculture features, including a pond for water storage. “I have a small herd of cows to keep the grass cut,” laughs Buck, who also loves horses. “My herd includes Watusi steers from Africa. They’re like Texas Longhorns…on steroids!”

“This was obviously a fun project to work on,” concludes Standley. “Barbara is such a dynamo. We would spend hours together, talking about the project or just talking about ‘stuff’. When we started, she was living in San Diego and came up about every other month. We emailed back and forth between visits, and when she was here, we’d have meetings that would often last two or more hours. She wanted the house to be natural and organic and have the look of having been there for 100 years. She wanted the feel of a hunting lodge without having it look too rustic. And she wanted the house to feel spacious, light and airy. Integrating all the design goals for this project was challenging and exciting.”



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