In 1964, a group of Bay Area architects decided to reject the sprawling, single-family residential style of development popular after World War II. Together, they built Sea Ranch, a Sonoma County community with the specifically-defined principle to let nature predominate. Nestled within the trees, the original buildings celebrate natural elements, simplicity and open, communal space.
Visitors can see a building replica and original drawings now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through April 28.
Before working on Sea Ranch, one of the architects, George Homsey, built his Dolores Heights home according to the same principle. Natural light pours into the numerous windows and skylights, and gives an open feeling to the house’s small rooms and narrow hallways. Most of the lot is dedicated to a lush and large shared backyard. The home is made almost entirely of wood – no sheetrock or stucco – just redwood shingles, wall paneling and tiles in the shower.
“The running joke is that you can take the house apart with a hammer,” Daniel Homsey told me as we walked around his father’s house. “Even the floors are just stained plywood.”
Like Sea Ranch, the home embraces both nature and community. Landscape architect Don Carter built the house next door, and Daniel remembers playing in the shared backyard with Carter’s kids and easily accessing both places. The communal feature worked well for the families, and even saved the elder Homsey’s life when Carter’s son came to his aid after he was overcome by heat stroke during a recent heat wave.
Unfortunately, 55 years later, Sea Ranch and the Dolores Heights home are still considered unique. Low-density, residential development continues to spread in California — even into high-risk fire areas. While fenced-property lines protect personal space, they also can increase our vulnerability; especially, as climate-change-induced heat waves and other environmental threats get worse.
The environmental and housing crises facing the Bay Area highlight the need for better, more inclusive, more resilient development. But responding to these needs doesn’t mean ignoring the past. Like George Homsey and the Sea Ranch architects of the 1960s, it means having the bravery to break free from the mid-century, single-family housing mold.
“Why should we be doing conventional things,” Dr. Kristina Hill, a professor at the UC Berkeley College of Urban Design, asked me. “We have an incredible market of people who want to try something new.”
As examples of successful, new developments outside San Francisco, Hill points to the IJburg neighborhood of Amsterdam where between 100-200 residents live in floating homes, and HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany, which incorporates a terraced design, instead of dikes, to protect people and belongings from frequent floods. Residents and employees of HafenCity don’t have to evacuate during a storm and can enjoy proximity to large expanses of water.
Like Sea Ranch, HafenCity and the IJburg neighborhood embrace, rather than fight, natural elements and encourage community and connection. Hill believes both designs would work well on the Bay-side of San Francisco as seas rise.
Regional leaders also believe better Bay development could improve The City’s resiliency to climate change. In 2017, a team proposed rebuilding Islais Creek, an industrial area at the juncture of the Bayview-Hunters Point, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill neighborhoods. The project
would provide space for flood waters, jobs, homes and community areas, such as a redesigned Alemany Farmers Market. It re-thinks the 20th-century model of development.
“Ultimately, the solution to San Francisco’s problems must work for people, the Bay and the ecology itself,” Dan Parham, CEO of Neighborland, a platform that helped the team communicate with city officials and experts, told me.
The original design of Sea Ranch and the Dolores Heights home celebrated ways to connect people and the environment. Building on this past to create developments for the future, like HafenCity and the development at Islais Creek, is important as heat waves and rising seas get worse.
Meeting our future with bravery, instead of complacency, can make us stronger.
A recycling question from a reader
In which bin should used kitchen aluminum foil be placed? – Gerri Wilson
After devouring your burrito, you can ball up the aluminum foil and toss it in the blue bin. While it’s good to get most of the food off the foil and compost it, aluminum doesn’t need to be completely clean for recycling. Recology, San Francisco’s recycling provider, only asks that it’s not wet on the outside because it could contaminate paper in the bin.
Don’t know which bin to put it? Ask me! Email sorting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest columnist. Check her out at robynpurchia.com