Renovation to Rebuild - Art from the Embers

Renovation to Rebuild - Art from the Embers

Renovation Project  | Sonoma Valley, California
A contemporary craftsman style home abruptly shifted from a series of additions to a complete rebuild when a wildfire ravaged the Sonoma Valley in California. This home was an (art)work in progress for six years, but the result brings new meaning to resilience. Understand the delicate balance between Kolbe’s VistaLuxe® Collection windows and interior walls used to showcase original art – where maximizing both was equally important.

As Karen Jenkins Johnson and Kevin Johnson’s home renovation neared completion, wildfires sparked in California’s Sonoma Valley. The fire spread across wine country and burned their residential retreat down to its foundation. After the blaze was extinguished, the homeowners realized what more could have been lost and gained a new perspective. Together with Marks & Marks Design and Greg Nelson Builders, they reimagined and rebuilt with a renewed commitment.


Video - Art from the Embers - Sonoma Valley, California


Original Search for a Natural Connection


Karen and Kevin were looking for a place to get away from their busy lives in San Francisco and a rejuvenating destination where they could host their family, friends and visitors.
After three years of searching, Karen and Kevin found their future home. Nestled in Sonoma Valley, at the base of Moon Mountain, the 23-acre oak-studded site hosts a 1-acre pond and neighbors an organic vineyard. The property’s existing structures were working barns, a small guest house, and a 2,400-square-foot, two-bedroom, one and a half bath, contemporary craftsman-styled home.

Exterior drone shot of home and pond after renovation

Karen explained, “The home was nice, but nothing spectacular. We both realized that at some point we'd be undertaking a project to make the house larger, so it would work better for our family.

“We wanted privacy and a place where we really felt connected with nature,” said Kevin. “We fell in love with the grounds.”

He elaborated, “The abundance of oak trees gives it a very special feel. We've been told they are between 80 and 120 years old, so that really provides the character for the property. We feel very fortunate to be able to enjoy that. In many ways don't feel like it's ours, but we're the caretakers for the time being.”

“This place just seemed very peaceful. It had a nice aura about it,” added Karen. Both Kevin and Karen went on to express, “We want to acknowledge that we are located on the traditional territories of the Me-Wuk (Coast Miwok) and Graton Rancheria nations. We would like to pay our respects to the land, and to the people who have and do reside here.”

Karen, a gallerist, also wanted a space to showcase large original artworks, including those created by their artist son using organic materials. Having land for their daughter to plant herbs or wildflowers and their granddaughter to play was important to their family.

Home during first remodel

Multi-Phased, Architectural Approach


Previously involved in designing Karen and Kevin’s primary residence in the Bay Area, Marks & Marks Design had worked with the couple for more than 20 years. The company’s designers, Steven and Linda Marks, understood their clients’ style and preferences. After gathering additional input and visiting the Sonoma site together, Steven began designing and planning a multi-phased approach to renovate the multi-structured property. Bringing the concept to reality, Greg Nelson Builder Inc. joined the project team in 2015 and remained on board through more than five years of renovation and rebuilding.

The first phase converted the barn from a utilitarian space to a party barn, where the couple could entertain groups and host events. Another smaller barn was repurposed as an artist studio. Once the barn project was completed, the couple was ready to improve their main home.

Front exterior of home during first remodel

“We obviously wanted a nice comfortable space, but we didn't want it to overwhelm or take over. One of our goals was to retain that feeling of capacity and being complementary with nature as opposed to kind of dropping something in that was jarring,” said Kevin.

“The owners’ desire was to have an organic sense of calm by being here. While the square footage didn't really suit their needs, the volumes and the proportions of the home were really compelling,” observed Steven. “It was inspirational – something we could build from and expand.”

Drone shot of home after renonvation, featuring back patio and pool

Steven explained, “What was tricky about this remodel process was that the house was very well considered on its own. It wasn't screaming for additions, so it was a task to figure out how to add 3,700-plus square feet to this existing structure, make it all cohesive and make it architecturally strong.”

The homeowners sought a more spacious main bedroom, larger en suite bedrooms, bigger mudroom and laundry areas, and purposely designed spaces for exercise and wellness, a wine cellar, a media room, and perhaps most importantly, a 1,000-square-foot art gallery.

Vistas for Miles


Respecting the established architectural style, Marks & Marks Design continued with similar finishes and materials, including Kolbe Ultra Series windows and doors with divided lites.

Interior of home during renovation

"Everywhere you look, you can see for miles. Certainly window placement and sizing was critical to that process. While all the vistas are amazing, certainly the most amazing are those to the west,” said Steven.

Everywhere you look, you can see for miles. Certainly window placement and sizing was critical to that process

The existing structure was placed at the upper eastern end of the property, which gently slopes down to the west. In conjunction with the landscape architects, a series of exterior terraces were developed. Each terrace steps down following the site’s topography, culminating in a large swimming pool. From the pool, one’s gaze flows to the pond beyond to the western mountains.

Sturdy Foundation Supports Rebuild


The renovation was about 90% complete when the wildfires raged through Northern California in October 2017. Karen and Kevin’s main house and the guest house burned down to their concrete foundations. Several 100-year-old oaks were destroyed.

After photos of home from fire

“It was heart wrenching to walk on to this site and see it gone,” recalled Steven.

With reflection, Kevin shared, “We were fortunate, I would say, in many ways, because one, nobody got hurt. And two, it wasn't our primary residence at the time. Because we were in the midst of the remodel, most of our belongings were in storage. We didn't lose family photos and we didn't lose things that couldn't be replaced. It wasn't easy, but the damage could have been a lot worse.”

Surprisingly, the party barn and a free-standing garage were spared. The fire fighters used the barn as a safe space to take a break from quenching the flames across Sonoma Valley.

“For us, there wasn't much thought to not rebuilding,” remembered Kevin. “We love the property. We still wanted to have this as part of our life.”

Rear exterior of home after renovation

Fortunately, the existing foundation was deemed safe for rebuilding. The hardscape for the pool and patio area had already been poured and remained intact as well. Kevin and Karen were able to start the rebuild process sooner than many others because their property’s plans had previously been approved, and their design-build team was already in place.

Clear Vision, Modern Appearance


“Essentially, we had built a full-scale 3D model of a project,” observed Steven. “We no longer had the constraints of an existing design vocabulary – exterior finishes, interior finishes, and windows and doors – we were free to design something much more contemporary, more minimal, more cohesive.”

Interior of home featuring expansive patio doors

“The rebuild did allow us to change a few things that we were living with because it didn’t make sense to tear it down,” acknowledged Kevin. “When we all of sudden had a clean sheet of paper we said well there’s some things we can address.”

“House as Art Gallery” redefined the design vision for the rebuild. Steven challenged the design team to “maximize these amazing views, which we have everywhere, while maximizing interior wall space.”

Interior of home and large direct set window with mulled awning window on bottom

Emphasizing the outside views, every window and door was carefully reconsidered for optimal positioning, size and scale. “The exciting thing in working with Kolbe Windows & Doors was that I was able to go bigger, bolder and more modern. We switched from the Kolbe Ultra Series, which I think is a lovely sort of more traditional line, into the very sleek and modern VistaLuxe Collection,” he added.

The exciting thing in working with Kolbe Windows & Doors was that I was able to go bigger, bolder and more modern. We switched from the Kolbe Ultra Series, which I think is a lovely sort of more traditional line, into the very sleek and modern VistaLuxe Collection
Sliding patio door with geometric transom window

According to Steven, “Kolbe offered a wide breadth of window and door types allowing us to easily vary our fenestration design, while maintaining consistent detailing through the high-quality of their products. The breadth of online resources and local representation was also a plus."

Engaging Indoor-Outdoor Experience


The loss of the oak tree view from the two-bedroom en suite wing presented the opportunity for a different focus. Stevens said, “We flipped all the fenestration around in that room. A very dramatic, 12-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall sliding door now opens out to a deck which overlooks the pond and the western views beyond.”

12-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall sliding patio door

“The views here are just phenomenal,” echoed Karen. “Being able to use the windows and doors allows us to be inside and enjoy outside when we don't want to go out. We're able to enjoy these wonderful sunsets and the colors and, and also stargazing at night with the moonlight hitting the pond. We have these wonderful views because of Kolbe Windows & Doors. They've allowed us to just seamlessly bring nature back into the home.”

We have these wonderful views because of Kolbe Windows & Doors
Bathroom with with a corner window wall, and windows behind sink mirros

Kevin agreed, “The combination of the location and the size and just the expanse of not only the windows, but the doors, allows you to feel like you're outside while you're inside, which is a really neat feeling. One of my favorite spots being in the shower and being able to see all the oak trees. It's almost like you're showering outside.”

Home gym with large windows and a sliding patio door

“I also love the exercise room,” interjected Karen. “I can be on the exercise equipment and just look out and see the wonderful landscape, which is lovely. When the coyotes come out, I can see them and the windows protect me. Because the windows are so big and clear, I can enjoy nature without having to go outside and find a safe spot to peek.”

Main bedroom with expansive sliding patio door

Deer, ground squirrels, egrets, ducks, geese, foxes, rabbits, wild turkeys and a turtle sanctuary are a few of the other wildlife she and Kevin watch through their windows. “There's a whole ecosystem happening down in the pond. I like to wake up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and open those big expansive windows that are in our bedroom, and watch all the ducks and whatever is going on down there.”

Remarkable Space, Resilient Performance


A new front entry garden and courtyard with access to the guest wing were among the significant changes in the rebuild. The guest house was integrated under one roof, which provided more space and flexibility for a separate kitchen, larger sitting room and bigger bedroom.

Guest bedroom that leads out to deck, featuring pati-door and custom geometric window

Revisions to the main home included a larger picture window in the family room, an expanded kitchen plus pantry and laundry area, an additional half bath in the gallery area, and raising ceilings to increase wall height. All interior walls are now 10 feet high or taller to support the House as Art Gallery vision.

Family room with large direct set windows and windows that accentuate the high ceilings

Steven also noted, “We chose to have some locations where windows are very vertical or very horizontal, and felt free to blend all of those shapes and sizes together.”

Library room with long horizontal windows and larger direct sets

“We very carefully guarded both vistas and walls. There are very substantial artworks housed in here, which is incredibly dynamic and exciting.” To help protect the artwork, finishes and furnishings from fading, Steven stressed, “It was important to make sure that the glass was high performance.”

Cozy reding area with sliding patio door

A Low-E 366 glass was specified to block harmful UV and infrared rays, while welcoming the natural light. The glass also keeps out unwanted solar heat to support energy efficiency. Further supporting the environment and energy-efficiency, the homeowners recently added a large solar array to the property and battery storage, as well as a backup power generator.

The rebuild fully complies with wildlife urban interface fire area building codes, high-performance energy codes, and other standards and best practices. “All windows and doors have to be, at a minimum, aluminum clad on the exterior. Glazing has to meet certain requirements that are beyond standard,” detailed Steven.

Rear exterior of home


"Purposeful resilience was essential to the rebuild We've done a lot of things to mitigate potential damage to the extent there is another fire,” said Kevin. As examples, he pointed to the metal roof and interior sprinklers. “The siding of the home looks like wood, but it's actually a composite material that's fire resistant. There’s a 3- to 5-foot gravel perimeter around the home and very minimal landscaping near the house. There's no way to eliminate that exposure, but we've taken a lot of steps to hopefully minimize it. We think we've done as much as we could to protect the things.”

Entrance door to home and home owners beloved olive tree