2010 CH+D Award for Residential Architecture (Less Than 3,000 Sq. Ft.): Lewis Butler


Lewis Butler, principal of San Francisco’s Butler Armsden Architects, knows a thing or two about building farmhouses. He comes from a California agriculture family and his parents have owned farms across the state. Over the years, Butler has designed them homes suitable to each location, the latest being a compact cabin on 400 acres in Yolo County. Amid the corn, tomatoes, sunflowers and wheat, Butler designed a mash-up of an old-fashioned water tower and what he refers to as a “contemporary chicken coop.”

“It’s as if these two buildings have collided: this simple shed structure, which serves as the living space, and a classic water tower, designed to access the views,” says Butler, explaining the juxtaposition. “I wouldn’t call the combination an unhappy marriage, but it’s definitely an unconventional one.”

The water tower was a dream of his father’s, who according to Butler, “ran around and photographed every single water tower he could find.” The brand-new structure blends in harmoniously with the landscape, even if its purpose is atypical. To get to their 20-foot-high perch, a covered deck, the couple climbs a spiral staircase, which Butler’s father has decorated with art and maps and dubbed his “Guggenheim.”

The couple’s appreciation for the contemporary extends into the main living space, the shed-like annex, which is paneled in four-by-eight-foot sheets of vertical grain fir. “It almost feels like you are inside a boat. It’s very sleek—it’s not supposed to be a rustic, knotty pine–clad environment,” says Butler.

The great room is less than 500 square feet and includes a spacious kitchen and living area, but no dining room. For meals with friends, tall doors slide open onto a wide covered porch, where an extra-long eave prevents dinners from being rained out. A small master bedroom is just off the main room.

The clean simplicity of the home is more than an aesthetic choice—as farmers, there is really no ignoring the imperative of functionality. Durable cork floor tiles accommodate muddy shoes and wet dogs, while a modern wood-burning stove enameled a dark green provides heat. The rest of the home is powered by solar panels installed over one of the neighboring structures; they also serve the rest of the farm, which needs power to pump water and run electrical equipment.

Despite its undeniable connection to the land, the home sits lightly on it—literally. The structure rests on wooden posts atop concrete piers, so it can be easily relocated once a more ideal spot on the property is determined (the family is waiting to see how the trees and other vegetation they have planted grow in). “I wanted the wood beams to stick out a bit to emphasize that they are all that’s holding up the house, those simple beams,” says Butler, who likes the idea of the home’s structural elements being displayed as opposed to hidden behind decorative panels and walls. “Everything is expressed, from the chimney that runs up the side of the water tower to the galvanized sheet-metal that is the roof.”

The cabin’s good looks and peaceful surroundings may appeal to harried urbanites dreaming of a tranquil weekend getaway, but Butler reemphasizes that this wouldn’t fit most romantic notions of farm living. “It’s not some kind of charming, hidden cabin tucked away by itself. It’s surrounded by outbuildings and trailers and equipment sheds,” he says. But it’s good to know that for this design-minded family, all of the hard work comes with a just reward—and a great view.

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