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With its natural beauty and strong agricultural history, Glen Ellen, California, has long attracted urbanites seeking a healing connection to the land. Literary hero Jack London is the most notable example, having purchased a ranch in 1905 and ultimately settling there after finding the fertile land and rural life irresistible.

A century later, architect Greg Faulkner’s clients — a San Francisco family of four and repeat clients — were attracted to Glen Ellen by the same aspirations. Seeking the sun and warmth of the Sonoma wine region as a retreat from the city, the family fell in love with a 1950s Glen Ellen barn and its farm connection.

The interior of the Tack Barn before renovation.

But while much of Sonoma architecture can feel like an odd mashup of buildings that aren’t quite barns or houses, Faulkner and his clients embraced the notion of retaining the authentic characteristics and atmosphere of the barn while reclaiming it as a living space. In designing the Tack Barn as a weekend home, Faulkner reused the barn’s frame and exposed the studs and rafters inside the building, leaving them raw and unfinished.

“So you still have the atmosphere and smell of a barn inside,” says Faulkner, founder of Faulkner Architects, which has offices in Berkeley and Truckee, California. “It actually feels like a barn. It has all the characteristics of a barn. Of course, we exploited all the things that we love about barns, with light through the spaces in the boards that illuminates, exposed structure, sliding doors, etc.”

Radiant heat meets aesthetic and energy goals

Faulkner was serious in his pursuit of maintaining the barn-like atmosphere. All the materials are reclaimed or reused from the original building, and the unfinished reclaimed-redwood rain screen uses a treatment that helps it take on the characteristics of an old, weathered barn.

An in-floor radiant heating system powered by a propane boiler enables the home to go without registers or ductwork.

That mindset carried through to the heating system. Faulkner didn’t want to use any registers or ductwork that wouldn’t normally be seen in a barn. So the home is heated by in-floor hydronic radiant slabs through a 10,000-Btu propane combi boiler. The boiler itself is exposed on the wall with its plumbing, lending an industrial feel. It was an easy retrofit to add the radiant tubing to the new concrete floor built over the original dirt floor, Faulkner says.

The boiler also plays an important role in the comfort and energy performance of the home. Faulkner has completed three homes for the client, and the homes have all used radiant heat, so they’ve come to expect the amenity. “Walking around in the winter with your bare feet — I’m sure you’re going to be comfortable doing that,” he says.

Faulkner also had ambitious efficiency goals for the project, designing it to consume 67.9 kBtu per square foot per year, a 53.5 percent improvement over California’s already rigorous energy code requirements. The boiler, which also provides domestic hot water on demand, was beneficial in those calculations, he says.

A rural energy option

The Tack Barn’s conditioned area was constrained by a maximum allowable size for an accessory structure of 850 square feet. Faulkner moved the home’s exterior wall inwards and formed an entry. An unconditioned sleeping porch doesn’t count toward the conditioned square footage, creating a total usable area of 1,520 square feet.

Faulkner frequently specifies propane on rural projects when there’s no natural gas available, as was the case on the Tack Barn site and for the larger Big Barn home he designed as the main home on the property. The clients and their children spent weekends at the Tack Barn while the Big Barn was under construction, sleeping in an unconditioned sleeping porch. Now, the Tack Barn serves as a place for the teenagers to hang out, overlooking a rebuilt swimming pool.

Inspired by the Tack Barn, the 3,900-square-foot Big Barn reuses the footprint of an existing 1950s ranch house and is connected via a steel-grated bridge to the hillside and Tack Barn above. Like its smaller sibling, it uses a propane boiler for radiant heating and domestic hot water, as well as a propane fireplace and range. For both properties, a propane barbecue, fire pit, and pool heater create a low-maintenance outdoor living space that extends the comfort into chilly California evenings.

In a sense, the Tack Barn takes Faulkner back to his roots in architecture school at MIT, where he focused his study on the nature of materials and building designs that respect the local culture, land, and context of their surroundings. Adherence to those principles is what makes him so proud of this dwelling, he says. “We ended up with a project that blends and feels like it’s been there forever.”

Photos by Joe Fletcher Photography.