Shortly after Sonja Bolle and Patrick Goldstein were married in 1991, they purchased 60 acres west of Templeton. For Bolle, it conjured memories of her teenage years, taking road trips up the coast from her Topanga Canyon hometown.
She loved the property for its “classic California landscape — oaks, bay laurel, granite outcroppings, mountain ridges receding into the distance,” she said.
The couple lived in Los Angeles, where they both worked for the Los Angeles Times and raised their son, Luke, now 16. But occasionally, they would leave the crowds and relentless pace of the city and “go up to the lot, and walk around and dream,” said Bolle.
They took the leisurely route to building their second home, with around 17 years elapsing between purchase of the property and the start of construction. Along the way, their priorities began to gel. They wanted a retreat from city life that would be peaceful, easy on the senses and easy to care for.
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Sustainability was also important. “We knew building a house from scratch is very indulgent, so we thought it would be good to do in the least environmentally invasive way possible,” said Bolle.
They assembled their team, which included San Luis Sustainability Group architects and Cullen Construction. Both firms specialize in sustainable home building. As the team began sourcing materials from Green Goods, Bolle and Goldstein hired Heather Tissue, an interior designer with the company at the time, for independent design work.
The couple was sold on the idea of straw-bale construction after visiting the straw-bale offices of San Luis Sustainability Group in Santa Margarita. “We went on a desperately hot summer day; it must have been 105 degrees out. We stepped into their office, and it was cool, almost chilly,” Bolle recalled.
The home is a generous 3,650 square feet, with two levels, five bedrooms and six bathrooms. It has the customary thick walls of a straw-bale home — but also some unexpected attributes. It is bright and airy, open and contemporary with arresting curves and angles. “Straw bale construction is as flexible, in fact in some ways more flexible, than standard construction,” said Ken Haggard, principal architect of San Luis Sustainability Group, who designed the home along with Polly Cooper and Scott Clark.
Brightness is a product of another sustainable feature: daylighting, or the calculated placement of windows to minimize the use of artificial light. In the great room, for instance, there are high, south-facing clerestory windows that flood the space with sunlight through partially exposed, sheathed trusses, and also allow heat to escape on warm days.
Daylighting is part of the home’s passive solar design, which means it largely heats, cools, lights and ventilates itself using a variety of architectural features. One notable feature is the row of water-filled Trombe tanks that sit along the non-straw-bale south wall, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night. In the summer, the tanks can be covered with a temporary shade.
The house is “off the grid” because of its photovoltaic solar panels. It also has a rainwater catchment system that stores up to 20,000 gallons for landscape irrigation.
Bolle adores the earthy, adobe-like feel of the home, so she and Tissue also chose sustainable materials and finishes with an organic character. Walls in the main living areas are sheathed in a natural clay plaster with a sage green tint. Woven reeds and grasses add textural warmth to window coverings and the powder room wallpaper. Concrete floors on the main level were stained a deep “cola” hue by Burch Concrete Solutions. The floors are warmed with propane-fueled radiant heating. Natural, renewable cork is soft underfoot on the second level, and also adds interest to soffit boxes in the kitchen and living room.
Most of the wood used in the home is certified sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), including the framing, casings, moldings and cabinet boxes. Interior window sills and soffits were custom built onsite due to “the irregularity, or undulations, in the straw bale walls,” said Frank Cullen of Cullen Construction.
Bolle calls her design preferences simple and understated. “I like things that are good quality, with quiet colors. Nothing very dramatic,” she said.
Tissue honored her client’s inclinations — but she also encouraged her to “go further outside my comfort zone,” Bolle said.
Among neutral hues and quiet patterns, Tissue added jolts of color and visual excitement, such as ocean-hued recycled glass tile running up the side of the master shower wall. A simple staircase became what Cullen called “a real centerpiece” with the addition of glass tiles on the risers, maple treads and LED lighting in the handrail.
In the guest wing, floors are turquoise, and walls are clad in yellow, terra cotta and purple jewel tones that according to Tissue, “reflected the terrain and sky around the home site but (we) bumped them up a notch deeper.”
“I probably never would have had the courage to do anything like that, but it re ally looks lovely,” said Bolle.
Tissue took a whimsical approach to the rumpus room bath by painting walls with chalkboard paint. A schoolhouse chalk tray is mounted by the van ity, inviting guests to leave their mark.
Bolle wanted decor to be simple, durable and unfussy, “so we don’t have to worry about kids throwing a ball and knocking something precious over,” she said.
She and Tissue kept furniture and accents minimal, carefully selecting a few one-of-a-kind pieces such as a reclaimed wood dining table custom made in Mexico through Luna Rustica, a dining room chandelier made from recy cled metal and glass and a Roche Bobois “Mah Jong” modular sectional with five different custom, coordinating fabrics.
Bolle and Goldstein are now freelancers with more opportunities to pursue their passions. They incorporated spaces for their family’s hobbies, including a pottery studio, a batting cage, a basketball court, and a rooftop star-gazing deck (they are amateur astronomers).
Construction took a little more than a year, wrapping up last spring. While the couple appreciates the level of detail and craftsmanship in the house, Bolle also enjoys it for what it lacks. The house stays comfortable without the intrusion of forced heat or air conditioning. The family only needs artificial light when it is nearly pitch black outside. And the lack of products that release harsh fumes means the couple never experienced that ‘new house smell.’ “It’s amazing to walk into a house that’s so quiet, where the smell is so neutral,” she said. “I find it so incredibly soothing here.”