Nestled in the Niles Canyon in the quiet California town of Sunol is a stunning example of contemporary architecture. Sinbad Creek, a villa situated on 5.3 acres of hillside, designed by Swatt Miers Architects, is both contrasting and complementary to its natural surroundings.
Set apart from the nearby rural homes by its modern design aesthetic, the villa is elegantly assimilated into the Alameda County landscape and indignantly challenges anyone who might suggest it does not belong. Outside, water-efficient horticulture celebrates the quintessential Californian grassland. A sizeable landscape is planted almost entirely with native species in lieu of a lawn, slowly dissolving as it progresses away from the house until the manicured gardens have faded entirely into raw nature.
Sinbad Creek is a feat of design that developed from one particular goal, which was to capture the remarkably scenic views. To the east, a spectacular morning sunrise, to the south, a view of Mission Peak near San Jose in the distance, and to the west, the setting sun over the mountains. “The project was a little unusual…the client came with a long written brief about what they wanted,” explains Robert Swatt, principal in charge of design. “There was a relationship between every room and a specific desire to capture three particular views.”
With a wish list to fulfill, Swatt set to work to design a home that would emphasize views more than anything else. With the help of project architect Jeanie Fan, Connie Wong (interior finishes), Jorie Clark (furnishings and décor) and landscape architect Joe Huettl, an energy-efficient, stark, modern rectangular design was developed. The structure, which cuts across the property on a north-south axis, features a rooftop photovoltaic array, solar-powered hot water heating, radiant in-floor heating, LED lighting, low volatile organic compounds (VOC), zero VOC building materials, formaldehyde-free cabinets and low-flow plumbing fixtures.
With no nearby modern homes to set a precedent, Swatt’s contemporary design was bound to ruffle a few feathers in such a tiny community. “Sunol is a very eclectic rural community,” says Swatt. “It has a lot of old houses that are really small, and I think the town mayor was, for a long time, a dog. If there is anything modern in Sunol, I’ve never seen it.” During a design review, the townspeople voiced concerns that the project’s plans were out of step with the feel of the community. “Everyone came out with their cowboy boots on and said, ‘Oh, that’s pretty modern for our town,’ and I had to explain all the good things like the landscaping and the protection of the trees. My understanding now is that it’s the most loved house in town by many people,” says Swatt.
It is also much loved by its owners, who attained every view they had wished for, though nearly at the risk of having their 4,000-square-foot home resemble a hospital. “To capture every view that [the owners] wanted, with living spaces facing east and west, meant that circulation wanted to be in the middle, which would create a doubleloaded corridor with rooms on both sides,” explains Swatt. “Our homes are never double loaded—they are almost always wings with circulation on one side and living quarters on the other.”
Still, Swatt was happy to take on the challenge. “We turned that diagram on its heels by placing all the living spaces on diagonals of each other and broke apart the grid,” he says. Each room is structured with ceilings of varying heights, making the home spatially exciting and stressing the diagonal views with windows and corner glass. “There is never a dull minute,” he adds.
The bright kitchen, with its clean maple cabinetry and quartz countertops, offers a westward view of the property through a bank of windows. Floor-to-ceiling windows predominate throughout most of the home to maximize the views. The living room looks in three directions, as does the master bedroom, which sits above it and features decks on two sides to catch the rising and setting sun.
The house welcomes the outdoors in with scenic views framed by soaring glass, impressive natural lighting and two unique indoor garden features that blend seamlessly with the home’s landscaping. A corner of the living room’s porcelain tile floor was eroded to give life to a planter that looks as though it shoots through the glass, while a garden near the front door appears to run into the home. The effect was achieved with plants that can thrive both inside and out. “We wanted to bring the outside in and dissolve the boundary,” notes Swatt. “It reinforces the idea that you are connected with nature.”
The result is a home that is one with nature, a retreat for the avid hiker and horseback rider, who can set out on the well-worn surrounding trails that spider away through the hills. At the end of a long day under the California sun, the private patios and decks with unique walk-over water features, are a quiet respite where flawlessly showcased views ensure that nature is never more than a glance away.