Salt of the Earth: Architect Neal Schwartz

San Francisco-based architect Neal Schwartz brings a straightforward goodness to The Lichen House Project.

Atop the rolling hills of California’s Sonoma County lies a home inspired by its environment. From the grandeur of a miles-wide view down to the intricate pattern of a lace-like moss growing off oak trees, The Lichen House embraces this site.

“It’s just getting to know the relation of the home to the site that makes sense,” explains architect Neal Schwartz. “We took advantage of all the nice things.”

Key among those was creating a dual perspective of the house. Upon arrival, the house is tucked into the hillside, low slung and blending into the ridge lines with its cedar siding stained a lovely gray and understated windows. But upon entering the home a magnificent view unfolds of hills, valleys and oaks. Schwartz reflects, “We wanted to preserve and intensify that sense of arrival on the site.”

And the perspective shifts again in the backyard’s gathering space, as the home looms on the hill. “Because the land is sloping away when you get to the back of the house it appears grander,” Schwartz explains.

The details to make the home feel harmonious with the site are found throughout the structure. There are clerestory windows framing segments of nature and the structure’s geometric shape maximizes views and privacy. An iconic shade trellis is a tribute to the Spanish moss that sprouts from the nearby oaks. Thin sheets of curved aluminum are pinched together, and the ensuing subtle curves replicate the lace-like pattern of the lichen. “We experimented with a lot of things to get the shadow pattern in the trellis,” notes Schwartz.

This architectural element is not only functional, its shadows create an ever-changing landscape, a ripple and sway that is emulated throughout the house in other mediums and features, such as the kitchen tiles and draperies. The home’s colors of green and tan (what Schwartz deems “licheny”) also complement the outdoor beauty.

As a professor at the California College of the Arts, in addition to owning his own practice, Schwartz has an aesthetic that defines his work. “I’m always on the lookout for simple, beautiful materials that will weather, age and patina well,” he says.

Building in the outdoors has also changed Schwartz’s perspective. “Like many architects, we were doing projects in the city and dealing with the constraints of urban projects. When we got our first major project in nature it really invigorated everything,” he continues. “I’m increasingly doing large projects in crazy beautiful sites in different natural settings.”

Originally the owner was seeking a small getaway home, similar to one Schwartz had already built elsewhere in the county. But as the two searched for property and came upon this parcel, plans evolved. Not only would the home become larger, at 3,500 square feet, it would also become the client’s primary residence for a growing family. “I think the client realized how beautiful the site was, so we really shifted to make sure it would work for his family long-term,” comments Schwartz.

The living/dining and kitchen areas surround the outdoor patio/pool, maximizing opportunities to socialize and enjoy the region’s temperate climate. The bedroom wing includes a Jack and Jill bathroom and the master suite bends off to sweeping views of another valley.

Photography Courtesy of Richard Barnes.

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