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Lessons Learned: Tips from Terremoto on Designing a Landscape that ‘Lives Lightly on the Land’

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Lessons Learned: Tips from Terremoto on Designing a Landscape that ‘Lives Lightly on the Land’

November 8, 2023

To a certain sector of the design world, Sea Ranch is a legend—but many people have never heard of it. A planned community two hours north of San Francisco, Sea Ranch is a prime example of 1960s West Coast modernism. Its minimalist cedar-clad buildings sit on a seemingly untouched stretch of the Sonoma Coast, thanks to the original master plan by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. 

Halprin and the developers imagined Sea Ranch “living lightly on the land” and wrote strict rules about the landscaping to enforce this vision. Over time, though, the property surrounding the shared public buildings, including the Sea Ranch Lodge, lost its definition and become a hodgepodge of plants with confusing pathways.

When the Sea Ranch changed hands in 2018, the new owners hired Seattle architecture firm Mithun and interior designer Charles de Lisle to update the communal buildings, and California landscape architecture firm Terremoto to redesign the landscape surrounding them. While the building refresh received accolades in the design media, the landscape went mostly unmentioned. “People said, ‘It looks like it’s always been there,’” says David Godshall, a partner at Terremoto, “I say that’s hard!” In fact, the Terremoto team went to extraordinary lengths to make the new plantings meld seamlessly into the surrounding land. “The wildness is what makes Sea Ranch so wonderful,” says Story Wiggins, the lead designer on the project. “Our goal was to embed the buildings further into what is this existing epic landscape.”

Here’s how Terremoto achieved their subtle redesign.

Photography by Caitlin Atkinson, courtesy of Terremoto.

1. Read the fine print of the surrounding land.

A photo of the nearby coast that the Terremoto team took as part of their research.
Above: A photo of the nearby coast that the Terremoto team took as part of their research.

Before any sketches were drawn or plants chosen, the Terremoto team familiarized themselves with the Sea Ranch property and the surrounding area. “We would go on hikes to see what we really loved and what felt good,” says Wiggins. “We were trying to mimic what’s there in a very basic way, and not getting too fancy with it.” Terremoto didn’t just make a list of the plants they saw in nature, they noted the patterns in which they grew and even studied the way that rocks were scattered in the earth. Wiggins suggests that any home gardener could do the same by going to a piece of preserved wilderness near their own home and taking notes and photos.

2. Pay attention to arrivals.

A defined and well-lit path now leads visitors to the Lodge’s entrance, while the unattractive utility elements are hidden.
Above: A defined and well-lit path now leads visitors to the Lodge’s entrance, while the unattractive utility elements are hidden.

While the land that Sea Ranch sits on is breathtaking, the drive into the property was decidedly not: Before Terremoto’s involvement, visitors arriving at the Lodge were greeted by views of asphalt and the utility yard. “One thing that really made a difference was hiding the dumpsters and the mechanical equipment that had been directly visible when you entered the site with some grading and fencing,” says Alain Peauroi, a partner at Terremoto. You might examine the arrival experience at your own home: What do your guests see first and how can you hide what is not attractive?

3. Create space for human connection.

A new deck creates additional space for guests to take in the sunset.
Above: A new deck creates additional space for guests to take in the sunset.

Another big change to the site was the addition of a large deck off the back of the building. “The back deck really allowed more people to enjoy the view. Before there were just two or three Adirondack chairs, now if you go out there at sunset on a beautiful night, it’s full of 20 to 30 people,” he adds. “The Lodge definitely has more life and more of a connection to the land.”

4. Source hyper-local plants.

The meadow’s dune sedge (Carex pansa), Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis), Purple Three Awn (Aristida purpurea), and Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) come right up to the boardwalk along the iconic Portal Walk. 
Above: The meadow’s dune sedge (Carex pansa), Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis), Purple Three Awn (Aristida purpurea), and Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) come right up to the boardwalk along the iconic Portal Walk. 

Among Sea Ranch’s founding principles is to use only “native plants,” but this doesn’t mean the broad range of plants that grow in Northern California: The development has a list of approved regional plants for specific parts of the property, like the immediate bluff area, the salt spray zone, and the forest edge. Studying your own local ecosystem adds an authentic feeling to your landscape design, but know that it may be tricky to source the materials you desire. “Our contractor Floriferous Landscaping was calling all the way up to Oregon to find stuff and going to tiny native nurseries all around the region,” Wiggins says. 

5. Leverage materials found nearby.

(At left) A fallen cypress that the Terremoto team photographed as part of their research. (At right) A bench crafted from Monterey cypress and boulders sourced from a nearby ranch feel like they have always been a part of the landscape.
Above: (At left) A fallen cypress that the Terremoto team photographed as part of their research. (At right) A bench crafted from Monterey cypress and boulders sourced from a nearby ranch feel like they have always been a part of the landscape.

In addition to hyper-local plants, Terremoto made use of fallen cypress trees on the property, turning them into benches and positioning them on the landscape in a manner similar to how they would have fallen in nature. The firm also sourced rocks and boulders from a nearby ranch instead of a landscape materials yard where, Wiggins says, “The stones are untethered from the landscape where they came from.” The Terremoto team could see the boulders that they selected sitting in the landscape just a few miles from where they were eventually re-homed.

6. Add structure to wildness.

Native grasses planted next to rigid boardwalks and fences make for a dynamic combination.
Above: Native grasses planted next to rigid boardwalks and fences make for a dynamic combination.

In Terremoto’s redesign all the paths and built elements have distinct structures, while all the new plantings blend into the nearby landscape. “[The boardwalks] give the guest some comfort—even with the wild planting they know where to go,” explains Wiggins. In any garden, structure in the built environment gives you license to be even more naturalistic with the flora. “With the path clearly defined, you can get away with a little bit more wild planting,” says Peauroi.

7. Quietly elevate dated elements.

The new posts become almost like sculpture instead of a mere functional element.
Above: The new posts become almost like sculpture instead of a mere functional element.

To maintain a continuous sense of place, Terremoto mostly copied the existing architectural elements, matching the new boardwalks to the old, for example, but they also made a few changes to improve the design subtly. One tweak was that the Lodge had round posts coming out of the asphalt to keep cars from driving up onto the porch, which Terremoto replaced with square ones that extended further into the landscape. “There was a precedent for this thing, but we extended it because we wanted it to become more of a [design] gesture than just a pure safety requirement,” says Peauroi.

8. Take the long view.

New Monterey cypress are being planted adjacent to the older trees so that the landscape will have a continuous aesthetic.
Above: New Monterey cypress are being planted adjacent to the older trees so that the landscape will have a continuous aesthetic.

As part of the landscape refresh, the owners have also paid attention to the natural life cycle of the existing landscape. Wiggins notes, “The Monterey cypress are reaching the end of their lifespan, so all across Sea Ranch they’re restoring those by planting really small new hedgerows.” Anticipating the natural life cycle of the existing plants on your own property will allow the landscape to maintain its unique character; for example, you might nurture a few oak saplings that spring up so that a successor to your mature tree is waiting in the wings should it reach the end of its life. 

Terremoto’s work at the Sea Ranch Lodge was extensive, but the cumulative effect was understated. Wiggins say one of her proudest moments on the project was when her team had finished placing some boulders in a meadow area. Some members of the design review committee showed up and Wiggins was nervous about what they would think. “But they were like, ‘Oh, I see you kept the boulder outcropping that was there,’ and we were like, ‘Nope, we just placed that.’ “

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