2009 Green Awards: Blasen Landscape Architecture

2009 Green Awards: Blasen Landscape Architecture

March 29, 2010

So, you have spectacular natural scenery and views worthy of a plein-air painting, but innovative local regulations require that man-made structures built on hillsides can have only minimal impact on the views from public roads. What now?  

"We were faced with lots of constraints that we turned into opportunities," says Eric Blasen of Blasen Landscape Architecture in San Anselmo, California, of this 30-acre hilltop poster-child-for-sustainability property in Napa Valley's Calistoga, a wine-country town about one hour north of San Francisco. Architects Eliot Lee and Eun Sun Chun always intended to embrace the landscape, so the issue of siting the house to code fit in well with their plans. In wanting the homeowners to be able to occupy and engage their surroundings, they constructed a series of single-use buildings rather than one large house and scattered them around the property. Made from rammed earth, there's a freestanding guest dwelling, living dwelling, master-bedroom dwelling and more, which when added up equal one traditional house. Days are spent drifting from one cozy space to the next, each with its own garden or green space. 

Dreamy as that sounds, none of it really works unless a functioning landscape can be integrated into this natural world, one that solves how to connect these buildings in a way that's beautiful while mitigating the very real problems of wildfires and droughts. In this case, what you don't do is almost as important as what you do.

"For us, a big part of 'sustainable' means respecting the site as you find it and adapting your plans accordingly, rather than leveling the place to force a preconceived structure onto it," says Blasen. "Our goal in designing this landscape was to create the least amount of disturbance possible during construction, blending the existing grades around the architecture of the buildings and repairing the site by repopulating the disturbed areas with native and indigenous plants, many of which were grown from seeds collected from plants removed prior to construction."

As always, the devil is in the details, and here no opportunity for reducing the impact on the environment was missed. "Water is a big issue in this region, so we developed a drainage system for aquifer recharge which allows the groundwater to be replenished from natural runoff," says Blasen. "Hauling off stone that was unearthed in construction was wasteful and expensive, so instead we used it all. We carved it into steps, ground it into paving and mixed it into the material used in creating the rammed-earth walls. No stone was brought in and none was trucked out. When it came to plantings, fire regulations meant using native plants that were both fire- and drought-resistant. And we took special care to save some of the existing old, large manzanitas by separating into plant groups what had been continuous plantings covering the entire hillside and carefully clearing out dead and dry brush - all of which could lead to the fire-ladder effect."

Even in regions where design is not necessarily dictated by very specific conditions, Blasen has a great piece of advice: "Understand the topography, study the light, work existing trees into the planting plans. Make the gardens blend in by blurring the lines between the natural and built landscapes."