A Family Playground
A spacious Sonoma County pool house offers a weekend escape.
Photography by David Wakely
Michelle Wempe knew she had a problem. An interior designer and the principal at Oakland-based design firm Zumaooh, Wempe was planning to renovate a 13-acre Sonoma County property for a Marin County couple. The original concept was to remodel the existing ranch house and turn a shed into a pool house. The crew began to dig the pool, then reality struck.
“During the course of our investigation, we discovered that the shed had no foundation,” Wempe says. “It wasn’t really a building that could be renovated.
“And we determined that the renovation of the existing house would be so expensive that the cost would be [as much as] something new. [But] they could use the property by keeping the house and building the pool house first.”
Instead of starting with the house, the owners decided to finish the pool and build the pool house, equipping the new building with facilities for cooking and entertaining. It would become their weekend playground—a place for their three young kids to spend the day jumping in and out of the water, and for the parents to host guests for outdoor lunches or dinners.
“[The couple] grew up in places where they could be out in the country,” Wempe says. “So their motivation was to have a place where their kids could run around and feel like they could do whatever they wanted, and not have to worry about traffic in the street, or anyone coming and picking them up.”
The pool house, which was built in about a year, is a clean-lined two-story assemblage of rectangles of glass, concrete, and smooth, honey-colored cedar. The ground floor can open fully to the outdoors. The living area has glass walls on the east and west sides that can slide back, opening this interior space to the swimming pool in one direction and to a broad meadow and a protective line of trees in the other.
“When you open the doors, it really is like being outside in a meadow,” Wempe says. “You just completely feel like you’re outdoors.”
“One of the reasons we love Sonoma is that the changing seasons provide a living art tableau,” says one of the owners. “Our pool house fluidly meets its surroundings. It serves as art, even as a lens through which we view the natural art around us.”
Cooking, dining, and entertaining take place on a generous outdoor patio covered by metal louvers positioned to ensure that the space is always shaded, an indispensable asset on Sonoma’s burning summer days.
The outdoor kitchen, located against one wall of the patio, is better equipped than most indoor kitchens. An aluminum roll-down door, the kind that one sees on street-level stores at night, opens to reveal a grill, oven, dishwasher, and undercounter refrigerator, which make it possible to host a child’s birthday party or a leisurely adult luncheon.
Family and guests dine at the patio’s long rectangular table, which is large enough to seat 14. Nearby, an upholstered sofa and chairs face an outdoor fireplace that includes an electric rotisserie.
The rectangular motif of the design and the minimal range of materials used in the construction give the interior a feeling of order and tranquility. The living area is sleek and uncluttered, with most of the functional aspects, such as closets and a stacked washer and dryer, hidden behind wood-paneled doors.
The living area also offers what parents of young children need most: indestructible features and furnishings. The sofa’s robust upholstery won’t be harmed by wet bathing suits or muddy sneakers. Leather-covered tables look like beanbags but have sturdy metal tops that lift to reveal storage space for toys.
A pleated silk light fixture, suggesting the curved form of an overturned kayak, provides a delicate contrast to all this functionality. On a practical level, it’s a remarkably beautiful disguise for fluorescent lights.
Solar panels in the meadow heat the pool, and those on the flat roof help power the house. “Green is a lot easier to do these days. It’s more accessible and more affordable, and there’s much more information available,” says Wempe, adding that the planned main house will have even more environmentally friendly systems.
Groundbreaking for the new house is scheduled for next year. Thanks to the decision to build the pool house first, the family will be able to enjoy its piece of countryside even as construction proceeds. ■