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A 1974 Sea Ranch Cabin by William Turnbull Jr. Gets a New Life


Joanne Koch wasn’t really looking for a second home. Like many people, she browsed real estate listings for entertainment, perusing beautiful places and dreaming a little.

“I just loved seeing what was on the market,” said Ms. Koch, 59, the principal of Koch Architects, in Berkeley, Calif. “I was always looking at rural properties on Redfin, surfing without even knowing why.”

Then one day in 2017, an online wave carried her to a listing she couldn’t ignore: a 1,200-square-foot modernist house built in 1974 in Sea Ranch, a community in Sonoma County, about 110 miles north of Berkeley. Perched on a sloped lot of just under half an acre, between redwood, bishop pine and grand fir trees, it had been designed by William L. Turnbull Jr., a prolific architect who died in 1997 and whose work Ms. Koch had long admired.

Joanne Koch, right, an architect based in Berkeley, Calif., and her partner, Bryan Connell, bought and renovated a 1974 house in Sea Ranch, Calif., designed by the prolific architect William L. Turnbull Jr.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

“My heart jumped,” she said. “It was a physical reaction.”

She had “always felt a kinship” to Mr. Turnbull’s work, she said, particularly the way he took the simple forms of vernacular agricultural buildings and translated them into modern homes.

But the house was already in contract. Ms. Koch studied the photos and moved on, with a vague sense that she had missed a rare opportunity to buy a home that would have been ideal for herself and her partner, Bryan Connell, 73, an artist.

Months later, back on Redfin, Ms. Koch was surprised again: The deal had fallen through and the house was back on the market. Although she had no real estate agent or financing in place, she called the listing agent and made plans to see it.

“It was better than I imagined,” she said. “I’ll never forget the moment I walked in, underneath the suspended catwalk and into the two-story atrium, and the view down the ravine to the ocean. It had all these wonderful qualities of good architecture. I scrambled to put things in place to buy it, because I knew if another architect saw it, it would be gone.”

She succeeded and closed on the house for $570,000 in February 2018, well aware that it had many problems. The septic system needed to be replaced. The structure was in need of waterproofing around the foundation, including a new French drain to eliminate standing water in the crawl space. A planned exterior deck had never been completed, so four sets of sliding-glass doors opened to a treacherous drop. The heating system, powered by a diesel furnace that rumbled like a tractor, also had to go.

As Ms. Koch studied the house more closely, she admired Mr. Turnbull’s design decisions, but also saw room for improvement. The two bedrooms, for instance, were separated by a diagonal wall. “In the ’70s, the diagonal was very popular,” she said. “But the bedrooms were sliced in this awkward way, such that there was no possible way to furnish them.”

The two sleeping lofts were also dark, with tiny windows that offered no views. “I think this was because it was built with a very lean budget initially,” Ms. Koch said.

She planned to straighten out the bedroom wall and add a few new windows that mimicked the proportions of the ones Mr. Turnbull had originally installed. “I found opportunities that I thought had been missed in the initial design,” she said.

Intent on preserving the character of the home, she had her contractors gingerly deconstruct the diagonal wall and reuse the boards in one of the new bedrooms. There wasn’t enough material for the second bedroom, and Ms. Koch was unsure about what type of wood it was, so she took a piece to Healdsburg Lumber Company, a local building supply store.

“I found this guy who was like the lumber whisperer,” she said. “He smelled it and said, ‘This is sugar pine.’ We ordered exactly the same material.”

For now, the new sugar pine is lighter in color than the older boards, but it will darken over time. To trim the new windows outside, she bought reclaimed redwood siding from the Lumber Baron, another building supply company, that matches the original siding.

Aside from replacing the diesel furnace with a radiant heating system powered by a propane boiler, Ms. Koch added a propane fireplace in the living room with a raised hearth that doubles as a bench. She removed the existing kitchen and reused the cabinets in a laundry room on the lower level. Then she built a new kitchen, equipping it with moss-green and gray cabinets from Premier EuroCase and a free-standing stainless steel work table from John Boos & Co. that she had powder-coated in matte black.

In all, the work took about a year to complete, at a cost of about $375 a square foot. Since the contractors wrapped up at the end of 2019, Ms. Koch and Mr. Connell have been amazed by the peace that surrounds them when they’re able to escape from Berkeley.

“It’s so quiet,” Ms. Koch said. “The loudest sound is the raven screeching from a nearby tree.”

For now, they rent the house on Airbnb when they’re not using it, to recoup some of their costs. “The long-term plan is to be there half the time — or possibly full-time — in the next five to 10 years,” Ms. Koch said. “Being in that space, and being in that world, is a reminder of how little you really need to live well.”

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