Behind The Scenes: Yorkville House by Architect Alan Nicholson

Nestled into the coastal hills of California, you’ll find a stunning residence conceived as a sheltering nest with wings to lift and water to anchor and reflect the earth and sky. The Yorkville Residence, designed by architect Alan Nicholson, is now the home of two retired geo-physicists. Here’s a closer look:

House Tour | Yorkville Residence via Alan Nicholson Design Studio |YLiving
Front Entrance. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

At the Yorkville Residence, an emphasis of lightness and flight is achieved through a roofing system that appears to be floating on glass. The building materials come together in a harmonious way where concrete, rammed earth, glass, steel, wood, and water all enhance the connection between the building and the surrounding landscape. The north wall of the house floats in a 70 foot reflecting pool, which helps to further integrate the house to its site, while the layered earthen wall brings a warmth to the industrial materials. 

House Tour | Yorkville Residence via Alan Nicholson Design Studio |YLiving
Living Room. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

Inside, dramatic windows stretch from floor to rooflineA long cantilevered shed roof gathers and gives lightness to the structure, opening the home to the landscape by embracing a beautiful 270-degree view. The interior decorating is simple, melding itself into the surrounding architecture. 

House Tour | Yorkville Residence via Alan Nicholson Design Studio |YLiving
Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

The clean, open look in the kitchen is achieved with simple wood cabinets and granite countertops. All of the cabinetry melds into the surroundings for a seamless, unobstructed design as the kitchen opens up onto both the dining and living areas.

House Tour | Yorkville Residence via Alan Nicholson Design Studio |YLiving
A custom chandelier hangs above the dining table. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

With an architectural emphasis of lightness and flight, each design element provides an unobtrusive view. Even the lighting captures this mood, which creates a clean and cohesive look that flows from one end of the house to the other.

House Tour | Yorkville Residence via Alan Nicholson Design Studio |YLiving
Two Tolomeo Wall Lamps are mounted on either side of the bed. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

In the master bedroom, the decor is minimal, which allows for the breath taking scenery to speak for itself. Custom bedding and wall mounted lighting create a simple, uncluttered space for rest and retreat.

House Tour | Yorkville Residence via Alan Nicholson Design Studio |YLiving
George Kovacs Tube 3 Light Bath Lights provide task lighting the master bath. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

More gorgeous views are to be seen inside of the master bathroom. A double shower at the back opens up on a breathtaking scenery.

We caught up with architect Alan Nicholson to get the details on how this airy 2,750 square foot beauty came to be:

House Tour | Yorkville Residence via Alan Nicholson Design Studio |YLiving
Front entrance. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

What is your architectural background?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where most of my parents’ friends were either architects or artists, so from an early age there was always an appreciation of the creative and built environment. I majored in architecture and minored in landscape architecture in school. After school I worked in industrial design and architecture and moved to Ukiah in my early thirties. After working in both construction and more architecture offices, I opened my own office in 2005.

You have an emphasis on the honest use and expression of materials. How did you put that philosophy into practice with the Yorkville Residence?

There is a long tradition in some schools of architecture of honoring and expressing both the structural elements and the materials and craft of building. It creates an honest dialog with the nature of the world around us which is nourishing and comforting to human nature, and has the potential to inspire the minds of the inhabitants according to their nature.
The Yorkville House is elemental; built with concrete, earth, wood, water, and glass for shelter, and in harmony with the view, sheltering geography, and solar orientation for human comfort. We used extensive glass curtainwalls to accentuate the connection with the outdoors, so the residents become more in tune with the natural environment around them.

Outside master bedroom view. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

What aspects about this project gave you the most satisfaction?

Good architecture fundamentally begins with good relationships with our clients. There is no great project without a great team. The owners, design team and the building team were all hands on and invested in bringing to life a remarkable design intent. It never ceases to amaze me to see a building project materialize from inspired ideas and mere lines on paper, and which results in so many happy people experiencing the built environment.

There was a desire to highlight lightness and flight in the Yorkville Residence. How did you achieve that?

The owners are both retired geophysicists and Bill is an exceptional pilot. He is a national champion glider pilot and represents the U.S. team in the 2017 world soaring championship in Australia. From the beginnings of a design brief, we were thinking about integrating the idea of flight, lightness, uplifting, etc. An early concept had an airfoil shape to the roof which was simplified to a flat plane for affordability. We separated this roof plane from the walls with glass to achieve a floating effect. At the same time, we were expressing the geology of the site and emphasized the anchoring of earth with massive concrete and walls of earth.

Backside of the Yorkville Residence. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

Would you say that you are influenced by nature?

All living beings are influenced by their environment and if perceptive, some use nature as an inspiration. Our inspiration takes not only the natural world but the nature of humans as our design palette. Our work aspires to be environmentally sustainable, but not “sustainable design”; it uses new materials, and new technologies, but is not “techno-design”; it is socially and community conscious design, but not “politically correct.” In this way nature is expressed through integration and not so much a literal element of design expression. Although invisible to the eye, the fundamental structural system was based on two trees with intertwining branches to create the open floating canopy of roof, rather than a more traditional post and beam structure.

There are parts of your design that further integrate the house into its surroundings, like the reflecting pool. Can you tell us a little bit about these features?

Water in architecture is used aesthetically to emphasize visual axes, reflect the surrounding environment, and visually multiply the adjacent architecture and its detailing. It is also used symbolically to represent the timeless life-giving, sustaining, and purifying characteristics that water embodies.

In looking for the right location to site the house, I could sense a large rock formation under the knoll we picked to build on and gently excavated around it. As a contrasting element, we established an entry sequence that included a 70-foot-long threshold of water to cross over to heighten the sense of entering a special place.

What role does the lighting play in the architecture and overall design?

Compelling architecture is contingent upon the quality, not quantity of the space it inhabits. Materials create space and light shapes and gives life to that space. Natural light marks the time of a day or a season. Lighting is subtle, but profoundly important to our lives. Although we tend to think of architecture as floor, walls and roof, space and light are the essentials in creating an enduring human oriented building.

Although function is often the starting point for lighting design, the goal is to illuminate the experience of space, to give comfort and to delight the mind. To accomplish this usually involves multiple light sources which complement each other, as well as the architecture and human needs.

Back view. Photo via Alan Nicholson Design Studio

How do you approach your obligation as an architect to improve the world and leave it a better place?

Design is a collaborative process in which the clients’ knowledge of their own needs is as important as the expertise of the design team. A successful project engages the people who use the building, and brings a sense of harmony and vitality to our environment. One must balance project needs with a conscious effort to step lightly on earth. We commit to lead by asking: Is it good for people, good for society, good for the environment and does it inspire?

Building design is not simply a service. Every building is an opportunity of our time, our era, not just a necessity. We believe every building is an obligation to improve the world, to inspire humanity and leave it a better place.

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Lizzy Harford

Lizzy Harford

Lizzy is a writer who is passionate about modern design and creating a comfortable space where relationships can grow. When she isn't writing, she's on the hunt for vintage mid-century modern pieces and sipping on a Mai Tai.

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