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Hillside Residence
East Bay Style

Landscape Architecture by Robert Mowat Associates, San Francisco and Napa Valley


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The 18' x 32' and 9'-8" tall Alaskan cedar "lamellae" (gill-shaped) structure covering the dining area of this hillside residence in Lafayette, Calif., is a contemporary framework to filter the sun's rays and deflect some of the wind that whips down the hill at the back of the property.
Photography: Treve Johnson Photography and Mitchell Shenker


Located at the foot of a windy, yet alluring hillside in Lafayette, Calif. (pop. 24,285), lies a beguiling collection of outdoor spaces. Lafayette is in Contra Costa County, located in the East Bay of the greater San Francisco metro area. Within the enticing landscape of this home are separate areas for cooking, dining, socializing, sunning and gardening. Highlighting the landscape are wood lamellae structures created for multiple social functions and modifying microclimate conditions.

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As night falls the recessed LEDs, can lighting (inset left) and fire elements create an inviting glow for the outdoor cooking, dining and bar areas. The seating near the Ledgestone fireplace and dining tables are also framed by lamellae. A nearby garden provides fresh herbs and vegetables for cooking.


A professional couple with two children desired a renovation of their small backyard. The home is a simple two-story stucco structure built within a 30-unit development by a public builder in the early 1980s. The owners desired a place where they could entertain outdoors while providing a separate space for their teen children. A large lawn and unused wood play structure dominated their typical suburban backyard. The clients' main objective was to have a warm, inviting landscape for their family and guests.

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The 40' x 80' rear yard of this simple two-story stucco structure had two 14' wide side yards. A large lawn and unused wood play structure dominated the backyard. The owners requested areas for dining, socializing, relaxing, sunning, cooking, gardening, food production and space storage, plus a spa and a separate area for the couple's teenagers and friends to hang out. Strict HOA design requirements dictated constraints on type, size, height and placement of landscape elements.


The 40' x 80' rear yard had two 14' wide side yards. The rear of the home faced directly south, which necessitated the back shades always be drawn; that didn't prevent the backside of the home from over heating. An outside shade structure was necessary, but it couldn't obstruct the beautiful hillside views. Furthermore, strict HOA design requirements dictated constraints on type, size, height and placement of landscape elements in the yard.

The site was strongly influenced by an open space hillside in the rear. The hillside directed strong breezes and late afternoon winds into the yard. The breezes were made more powerful by the venturi effect along the rear facades of neighboring homes.

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Corten steel LED bollards with sculptural plant motifs accent the entrance to the teenage fire pit area. Both the spa and fire pit hardscape is 'Thunder Basin' flagstone; the concrete paving is saw-cut colored concrete ('Sierra' by Davis Colors).


The challenge was creating all of the desired social spaces, while ensuring they would be comfortable and livable. While the size of the back yard was not atypical for a production home in many parts of the San Francisco Bay area, the HOA design requirements, client requests and existing space restrictions required an inventive design. The owners requested areas specifically for dining, socializing, relaxing, sunning, cooking, gardening, food production and space storage. They also desired separate areas for a teen spa and a social area that required delicate space allocation.

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In the late afternoon, strong breezes swoop down from the neighboring barren hillside into the back yard. Placement of a Montana Ledgestone stonewall (real stone) was one effort to mitigate those winds. The wall is 10" wide and 6'-6" tall. 'Blue Chalksticks' succulents (Senecio mandraliscae) and Agave attenuata are the accent plantings.


The landscape architects believed a climate modifying structure could solve functional challenges while being a unifying aesthetic feature within the landscape. The intent was to enhance awareness of the landscape within a beautiful and comfortable design. A creative system of lamellae (gill-shaped) structures was designed as a contemporary framework for the landscape. Lamellae are reflected in the wall, trellis, screen and arbor, creaking a substructure for an upstairs master-bedroom deck that capitalizes on the hillside views. The lamellae provided a unique way for sun and wind to be gently filtered into the back of the property, with the stonewalls deflecting the downhill winds from the neighboring properties.

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The linear cedar beams behind the spa, as elsewhere, mitigate wind and sun, but also block the view of the barren hill. The spa deck is flagstone. Uplights accent the beams, New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and a red maple.


The wood lamellae made daytime use of the spaces livable, comfortable and enjoyable. The Alaskan cedar lets the breezes flow through on hot days, yet deflects stronger winds around the dining area. As night falls the LEDs and fire elements in the back and side yards create a warm glow. Alluring seating near the fireplace and dining tables are framed by lamellae. A nearby garden provides fresh herbs and vegetables for cooking.

The large existing lawn was replaced by additional hardscape; a smaller lawn of 'Bolero' turf was specified as a dog area, along with shrubbery and a subsurface irrigation system to further conserve water. The new design resulted in a 37% decrease in landscape watering.

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Another Ledgestone wall is the backdrop for the sunning deck, with the new cedar storage shed adjacent. The large existing lawn was replaced by additional hardscape. The new smaller lawn, a dwarf fescue ('Bolero' from Delta Bluegrass Co.) is meant for the family dog. The turf has a bluegrass-like texture and requires little water. Subsurface emitter irrigation was specified. The new design has decreased yard watering by 37%.


The lamellae produced an additional opportunity for the designers. The designers proposed creating a new larger upstairs deck off the master bedroom in place of the small Juliette styled balcony. The new ipe deck shades the lower level cooking area, provides seating and viewing space for the upstairs bedroom. The deck has been constructed to be weather tight and sealed so that the below level area would not have water drips and staining. This new soffit area houses recessed exterior can lighting to light the bar and cooking area. The lamellae were continued underneath this area for aesthetic continuity. The lamellae boards extend past the deck and shade the home's south facing windows, protecting fabrics and cooling the interior rooms.

The new design created a dramatically refashioned outdoor living environment that now hosts numerous family events. Candlelight dinners, family get-togethers, business meetings and teen friendly gatherings are now taking place in the once deserted backyard. Surprisingly stylish, yet structured, the innovative design clearly demonstrates that landscape can change life.

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A 15' x 12' ipe deck extends out from the upstairs master bedroom. It provides seating and views of the hillside, and shades the lower level cooking area. The deck is weather tight and sealed to prevent any moisture dripping down to the outdoor dinning area. The lamellae boards were continued underneath this area for aesthetic continuity. The boards extend past the deck and shade the home's south facing windows protecting fabrics and cooling the interior rooms.


Lafayette Residence Team
Design Firm: Robert Mowat Associates, San Francisco, Napa Valley
Designer: Robert Mowat
Structural Engineer: Ahsan Kushkaki
Contractor: Chuck McGinnis
Photography: Treve Johnson Photography and Mitchell Shenker



As seen in LASN magazine, November 2017.






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