Modern Tranquility in Napa

An architectural pool house in the Northern California wine country embraces its surroundings

The 1-acre site in the heart of the Carneros wine region had everything going for it: It was at the end of a private road and adjacent to acres of vineyards, it was full of mature trees, and it already had a well and a septic system. But architect Neal Schwartz says that the clincher was when his dog lay down under one of the big oak trees and fell asleep. Sold. Schwartz began designing a house and a pool house, as the real estate agent mentioned the property would have greater value as a vacation rental with the addition of a second structure. With the property becoming wildly successful as a vacation rental for families and wedding parties, Schwartz and his husband, Ron, are now blocking out time for themselves to fully enjoy the impeccable modern structures the architect created on the rustic site.

So You Want to Build: 7 Steps to Create a New Home


 Schwartz and Architecture, original photo on Houzz


Houzz at a Glance

Who lives here: This is a second home for architect Neal Schwartz and his husband, Ron, and their dogs, Aldo and Florence.

Location: Sonoma, California

Size: The pool house is 575 square feet (53.4 square meters)


Schwartz and Architecture, original photo on Houzz


Architect Neal Schwartz designed the pool house as a set of squares: On the right side, the square is the bedroom; on the left side, the square is the bathroom; in the middle is the courtyard with the hallway tucked inside and behind that connects the two ends. But Schwartz didn’t want a square house. “I wanted to maximize the length of the pool house, in order to bring definition to that side of the property, block the neighbors and provide privacy,” he says. The simple forms allowed him to accomplish his goals.

The long window in the hallway was a leftover from the main house. The windows are all outlined in black. “I’m a big fan of keeping the main architectural elements subdued and calm,” Schwartz says. “Through furniture and artwork I add color.” Here, he framed photographs of “jellyfish and other bizarre aquatic creatures” that he found in a book by a Russian marine biologist. Behind the pool lounges, a wall of western red cedar was preweathered with a stain to a muted gray tone.


Schwartz and Architecture, original photo on Houzz


“I wanted to design a modern pool house that would wear well and be indestructible,” Schwartz says. The structure is clad in corrugated metal. The courtyard has a poured integral-colored concrete floor. The flat overhang connecting the two end forms defines the pool house’s courtyard, and in the afternoons, when the wind picks up, the overhang helps block the wind. “I also oriented the structure, the courtyard and its overhang, so that at any time of day, there’s always a place in the sun and a place in the shade,” Schwartz says.

A pop of blue indicates the door to the bathroom off the pool house courtyard. The view from the courtyard includes the house, clad in the same corrugated metal as the pool house; the 10-by-30-foot freshwater pool; and the site’s mature oak trees. The site provides the perfect jumping-off point for bike riding, sightseeing and wine tasting. As a vacation rental, the buildings are ideal for visitors who appreciate a modern, uncluttered and comfortable design.

Use Concrete for a Simple, Easy-to-Clean Design


Schwartz and Architecture, original photo on Houzz


Schwartz kept things simple and inexpensive in the pool house’s bathroom. “It’s like a European bath where it’s a whole wet room,” he says. “You can easily hose the whole thing down for cleaning.” The stained-concrete floor has a drain hidden beneath the bath mat. The shower curtain runs on a basic hospital track Schwartz rigged up. He ordered the Italian tile online for less than $6 per square foot. He purchased the tile in a 4 by 6 size. “I prefer simpler materials with nice or unusual proportions,” he says. “The way we stacked it gives the room a clean, crisp look.” He bought the light socket, then found bulbs to fit to create the fixture over the mirror.


 Schwartz and Architecture, original photo on Houzz


Schwartz brought color into the bedroom with the furnishings. Orange classic French bistro chairs sit around a table he constructed from bar-stool legs and a piece of throwaway stone. He cut the blue and gray carpet tiles so they weren’t square, “again changing the proportions to make the carpet seem more custom,” he says. While designing a photography gallery, Schwartz had the furniture maker who was fabricating the metal and Douglas fir benches for the gallery construct an extra one for the pool house.

The pool, with a gray concrete surround, has a series of broad steps for walking in; the steps also serve as places to sit. The interior of the pool is a dark-gray plaster. Schwartz planted fast-growing grasses around the pool for maximum impact. “Originally we didn’t even think we wanted a pool,” he says. “Now we wish we had a bigger one!”


Schwartz and Architecture, original photo on Houzz


A gravel path lined with a no-mow red-fescue lawn uses little to no water. “I wanted something that looks natural and wild,” Schwartz says. He traces his love of flat roofs to California modernism, particularly the Case Study Houses. “I come from the East Coast where you need pitched roofs because of the weather,” he says. “Here, there’s no need to build all of that volume. A flat roof is more straightforward and streamlined.”

Except for the California live oaks and coastal oaks, the site was barren. A decorative fence demarcates the garden the couple created, which is filled with low-maintenance, low-water plants and grasses, including miscanthus, crape myrtle, pittosporum and lavatera. French bistro chairs provide garden seating around another table Schwartz built from bar-stool legs and leftover stone for the table top.

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