Tuesday, June 25, 2024

How the Creators of Napa’s Suspension House Defied the Odds

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The stunning and surprising Suspension House in Napa, California may look like a mirage, as it’s veiled in mist and emerges from a canyon in the early morning light. 

But in reality, it’s a recently completed modern dream home—one that wouldn’t have been possible, were it not for a team of architectural, engineering, and design experts collaborating to overcome some pretty challenging obstacles.

First of all, California no longer allows any new construction within 100 feet of a creek, requiring a necessary setback for anything new being built. And the Suspension House isn’t just close to a creek. It crosses over one. 

Fortunately, an existing structure had already been built on that site, spanning the waterway. And bringing the Suspension House to life meant remodeling—rather, overhauling—what was already there.

At the helm of the not-so-impossible project was award-winning architect Ann Fougeron, FAIA, founder and principal of the San Francisco-based firm Fougeron Architecture. She and her team helped create a three-level home that incorporates multi-level outdoor decks with a living room, dining room, kitchen and pantry, and bedrooms (including a master suite and guest suite).

Storyboards for the Suspension House (courtesy Kilograph)

Fougeron Architecture specializes in modern, light-filled homes—and with its clean lines, floor-to-ceiling picture windows, and multiple points of entry for sunlight, the Suspension House truly integrates the indoors with the outdoors, creating a sense of both transparency and privacy with the expansive views outside and the limited views inside.

Anchoring a house above a creek, by the flanks of a bedrock hill is an approach that doesn’t happen every day for residential designs—so it’s no wonder that it required a little innovation. Using virtual reality, renderings from Los Angeles-based agency Kilograph helped visualize how the Suspension House would work with the natural environment around it, rather than fighting against it, both during different times of day and through seasonal changes.

Bringing that concept to life—on a 2500-square-foot lot in a craggy canyon—also involved the structural engineering firm Endrestudio, based in Emeryville, which worked closely with both the architects and the builders.  

Endrestudio was uniquely suited for the project, having previously engineered everything from residential projects to large-scale towers and even public bridges. 

But “bridging” a creek? That might look simple, said principal Paul Endres, FAIA, but it was actually quite complex. 

First of all, consider the unconventional location—for which the engineers had to design without visiting it in person before construction actually started. And besides the creek and riparian habitat, there’s the added complication of no flat land (or “horizontal platform”) to build upon. That required creating an anchorage that wouldn’t damage “what’s valuable and beautiful about the site,” Endres said. 

“Most engineers would not want to tackle a project like this,” said Endres, who’s not only a civil and structural engineer but also a licensed architect. 

Fortunately, Endres’s team isn’t like most engineers. According to Endres, all of their work is “highly technically challenging and extremely finely detailed.”

“Those are the things we revel in,” he said. “This is exactly the kind of project we do.”

image courtesy Enderstudio

The original wood frame structure they encountered—the one that was already built there —literally featured wooden two-by-fours directly bearing down on the rock in the middle of the creek. Sound precarious? It probably was.

For the remodel, Endrestudio had to create a system for the structure to be both reliable and safe. That involved an elaborate and sophisticated effort to cantilever the Suspension House both vertically and horizontally — and in both directions. One of those cantilevered areas hangs 15 feet out the back of the structure, over a waterfall. 

The firm also needed to secure the structure differently than it had been before — but the solution wasn’t necessarily as simple as drilling through the rock on either side of the creek (which is relatively stable because of the geological character of the canyon it runs through). 

The firm couldn’t attach the steel bars they wanted to use rigidly, Endres explained, because fluctuations in temperature could create movement that could “tear the sides of the creek apart.”

Instead, the team used a combination of rollers, pins, and slotted holes to create a support structure that could move laterally and also roll under stress, even if an earthquake were to strike.

All of this was accomplished with the use of minimal materials, creating a kind of “floating bridge” that maintains “a very calm and beautiful, serene site,” Endres said. 

In short, the finished structure above is surprisingly subtle — even though, Endres added, it’s “doing heroic things.”

Even better? According to Endres, “It is a lot safer than the original structure was.”

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