A Sense of Harmony

A California home embraces Richard Neutra's legacy of indoor-outdoor living

Kevon Zehner’s hunt for a buildable lot in Santa Barbara, California, took him to all sorts of rugged hillsides and canyons. Yet none had the combination of views and access he and his husband, Ron Ritchhart, wanted. 

Then, in late 2012, he visited a lot in the upper reaches of Mission Canyon. At the foot of Gibraltar Peak, with steep slopes on three sides, Zehner saw its potential immediately, yet this one, too, seemed short of magic.  Three years earlier, a fire destroyed scores of homes on that hill, including the house that had occupied the lot and the one next door. An enormous pile of dirt from the seller’s neighboring rebuild was obstructing visibility to the west and south. For due diligence, Zehner scrambled to the top.   It was the best pile of dirt he ever climbed. 

Behind it was not just a view of the Pacific Ocean, but the whole city of Santa Barbara, its harbor, the Northern Channel Islands, and the coastline wending its way west. He took pictures and sent them to Ritchhart, who was working in Australia. 

Needless to say, they bought the lot. Within six months, they’d connected with Dave Mendro of Neumann Mendro Andrulaitis Architects (NMA) and entered into acollaboration that culminated in a Modernist gem reflect-ing the ideas and philosophy of Mid-century master Richard Neutra. “Our inspiration for the house was Richard Neutra and we shared that with Dave ... that we were inspired by the Case Study Houses and liked that kind of sensibility. But [also], one of the things that attracted us to Santa Barbara was the indoor-outdoor living, and that meant a lot of glass,” said Ritchhart.  Most of the floor-to-ceiling win-dows in the house also act as pocket doors. When windows in the liv-ing, dining, and kitchen areas are fully drawn, a 35-foot-wide opening unites the outdoor patio and pool with the interior living space. Such a direct connection with nature was a tenet of Neutra’s design philosophy. Clean lines and harmony of inter-secting planes evoke a feeling of calm, and the inclination to disap-pear into the expanse of landscape and ocean, both rugged and delicate, is close at hand. 

Furnishings present a clear Mid-century point of view, with Neutra Boomerang chairs in the living room, and Bertoia Bird and Eames chairs in the primary bedroom. Choice pieces of modern art and photographs include a large canvas painted by Indigenous Australian artist Emily Pwerle. 

But simplicity in architecture isn’t simple to achieve, Zehner and Ritchhart say. There were challenges of both design and engineering that Mendro, with 30 years of archi-tectural experience on the Central Coast, understood well.  

“Often, clients come to me and say, ‘I want to build a modern house, and it’ll be easier because it’s very simple.’ But that simplicity is not simple,” Mendro says. “All the openings, like the doors and windows, are wall to wall, so the walls have to be perfectly accurate, and the doors have to be perfectly sized to that width. Whereas in a traditional house, everything is more forgiving.” 

Though NMA designs traditional and modern residences, their foremost objective is always to understand their clients’ needs and wishes and bring them fully to frui-tion. Next is the setting — ensuring that whatever is built fits seamlessly with its surroundings. In the case of Zehner and Ritchhart’s house, that meant maximizing access to the views, using materials that would be both fire resistant and capable of withstanding the harsh wind and heat of the exposed hilltop environment. 

When setbacks from the slopes were factored in, the lot’s buildable space was comparatively small, Mendro says, so orienting the house so that each room would have access to at least one view was like solving a puzzle. “It was kind of like a Rubik’s Cube. If you moved one part of the house, it rippled through and impacted other areas,” Mendro says.  

Ritchhart recalls how Mendro plotted the house out on the ground for them so they could walk through and see where the different orientations were and what the view would be from each room. “In the original plan, they had the master bedroom facing west,” recalled Ritchhart, “but we decided to flip that to the other side because we already have that western view. Putting it facing east, we thought, ‘Let’s just see the sunrise, let’s see the mountain, let’s see down the coast.’ So it was really thinking about how do we take advantage of all the different views.” 

In the end, every room but the pantry has an ocean view.

Because Santa Barbara’s foothills fall into a state-designated High Fire Danger area, all the materials were considered from a fire-conscious viewpoint: a fire-resistant membrane was placed on the roof, metal fascia and plaster eaves, plaster and concrete exterior walls, and spray insulation that eliminated the need for vents in the roof. Concrete floors and patios, chosen for style, were, fortunately, inherently fire-resistant. 

For Zehner and Ritchhart, who use the house as a vacation home, the result was well worth all the chal-lenges, even the challenge of flying back and forth from their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during construction, sometimes round trip in the same day.  

“The house has a Zen quality to it,” says Ritchhart, who is an education researcher and fellow at the University of Melbourne. “I’m an author, and when I’m working on a book, it’s a great place to focus. And although we’re only 15 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara and the ocean, it still has this real sense of place and connection to nature.”