The New Family Farmhouse

by Jim Tolpin

The Taunton Press, Inc. 2000

The owners of this house wanted to raise their two young daughters in a low-key, rural environment, so they moved their family from San Francisco to the Sonoma Valley. They rented a comfortable house while they looked for a home to buy. Instead of finding the perfect house, however, they found the prefect piece of property – four-plus acres with a view across the valley, a seasonal creek, and a huge, old ash tree. The owners envisioned a rambling, single-story home where they could spread out and raise their family, a place that would be as lovely as the idyllic setting. They approached architect Andy Neumann, a friend of the family, and asked him to design a win-country farmhouse in his informal, yet elegant style.

The couple explained to Andy that they wanted a lot out of their new home. It was to be a place where they could live in harmony with the seasons, but they were looking for strategies to keep the mud, dust, and the bugs outside, too. They wanted a home that would be comfortable and easy to maintain, but beautifully finished with fine detail work and well-chosen materials. They wanted kid-friendly spaces and a casual, open kitchen/family room for everyday living, but also a separate formal living room, dining room, and library. Andy assured them that all of these disparate elements could be integrated into their new family home.

Making Places by Balancing Spaces

Homes need to afford adequate privacy for individuals, provide zones where family members can all gather together, as well as make room for visits from family and friends. Often, a single space in a home will address multiple purposes. Here, however, Andy's design carefully balances separate individual, family and guest spaces, with approximately one-third of the home's square footage apportioned to each type.

The home is built around a large central entry, with hallways leading to the kitchen/family room wing, the bedroom wing, and the formal wing, which is composed of a living room, a dining room, and a library. A butler's pantry provides access directly between the kitchen and the dining room, but for the most part, it's necessary to pass through the central entry to go from one part of the house to another.

The homeowners use and enjoy every part of their home, and despite the apparent formality, the family enjoys a relatively informal lifestyle. The living and dining rooms are favorites for entertaining guests, but they are used by the family as well. The living room is a favorite spot for a little quiet time, and the family eats a sit-down dinner together in the formal dining room several evenings a week.

Working the Room

The kitchen/family room wing is the most-used part of the house. The center of the kitchen is a large, granite-topped work island with an eating bar. As in many family kitchens, this is a favorite spot for afternoon snacks, homework, and visiting with the cook. The family room features a cozy window seat, a sunny dining alcove, and a floor-to ceiling, river-rock fireplace. On very special family occasions like Valentine's Day, the family room is rearranged and the dining table is set up directly in front of the fireplace.

An old-fashioned screen porch, where the family dines and relaxes during the warm summer months, is used primarily as a mudroom the rest of the year; the owners would like to find a better use for this space. They plan to put up (removable) glass panels so that the screen porch can be used year-round as a teen retreat. Perfectly positioned for this use, the screen porch is visually isolated and somewhat removed from the family room. At the same time, it's close enough to the kitchen/family room to allow for discreet parental supervision.

A Private Space

The bedroom wing is a quiet refuge from activities in other parts of the house. Each of the homeowners' daughters has an identical bedroom, complete with a built-in window seat, armoire, and desk. When designing bedrooms for the children, it is important either to give each child a specially chosen bedroom feature or, as the homeowners have done here, to give each child an identical, relatively neutral room that can be personalized and individualized.

The two bedrooms share a common bathroom, where each girl has her own sink, counter space, and mirror. Usually, children's bathrooms are placed along a bedroom hallway, and the children share a single, common bathroom door. In this house, a door in each child's bedroom leads into their bathroom.

There's a third door in the bathroom, but rather than leading back into the bedroom hallway, it opens directly to the yard outside. The master bathroom has outdoor access as well. After an afternoon playing in the yard, digging in the garden, or taking a dip in the pool, family members come directly to their bathrooms where they can shed dirty clothes or wet bathing suits and clean up.

Double doors in the entry can e closed to give the bedroom wing a greater sense of privacy. The bedroom hallway is unusually wide. One wall features built-in shelves and cabinets for books, family photos, television and video equipment. On the opposite wall, a cozy built-in window seat sits in a well-lit alcove. Further along the wall, display rails feature an ever-changing exhibit of kid art. Like the family room on the opposite side of the house, this is a casual space where family members can relax with their feet up, watch a little television, and unwind. Unlike the family room, it is a very private space, intended primarily for family members. According to the homeowners, their daughters can sometimes be found curled up together here at bedtime.