Michael Funk told me he could be just as happy living in a tipi on his 1,200 acres of hills and waterfalls along the Yuba River as he is in his palatial off-the-grid home. I visited Michael's home when I was editor-in-chief of Natural Home & Garden magazine, and I get what he's saying. But I wouldn't trade in his house for a tipi.
I'm not a big-house fan -- and this one is 6,000 square feet -- but Michael's home, which doubles as a retreat center, is responsibly built and completely off the grid. It's solid, an heirloom in a jewel of a setting. Michael's home inspired me, the way good homes built with good intentions do.
Michael, chief executive officer of United Natural Foods and former chair of The Sierra Fund board, built his "big house with lots of little places to hang out" as both a home and retreat center for his business and environmental philanthropy associates. His 1,200 permanently protected acres will never be gobbled up by development, so stunning views of Rock Creek waterfall and the Yuba River corridor will inspire everyone who visits for generations. Michael wants everyone who visits his home to remember why we work so hard to preserve nature's spectacle. And it works. You can't look out his windows and doubt the calling.
Built by craftspeople using mostly local materials, including stone and trees from the property, the house is mostly round. Architect Jeff Gold stepped outside the rectilinear box with his organic design, drawing lines that radiate from a large circular living room toward the Rock Creek waterfall to the east and the Yuba River gorge to the west. Gold's design embraces the site with passive solar heating, abundant natural light, natural ventilation, a courtyard garden, a "sun" terrace and a "shade" terrace. Half of the home is underground, which keeps it cool during stifling Gold Country summers. The living room accommodates 40 or 50 people, the kitchen can feed them, and two private guest suites look mighty comfortable for out-of-towners. The house also includes an office with a good-size board room, a serious game room and a large root cellar for produce grown on the property. Extensive orchard and vegetable gardens provide a significant portion of the household's food requirements.
"The house is certainly not scaled as a conventional family house would be, and it was definitely a challenge to do a house this size and have it not appear that large," Gold told me. "Yet, when you come in, even if there are just two or three people in the house, it doesn't seem huge. There are no large, cavernous spaces. It's broken up enough so you feel a sense of intimacy."
92 photovoltaic panels and a large battery bank power the house, as long as everyone's a little bit careful. "We couldn't have air conditioning, which I was a little afraid about -- even though I don't even really like air conditioning -- because this is a hot climate," Michael says. Opening windows at night to capture cooler night air keeps the home comfortable the next day, he says. "That was a big relief. I had a bit of doubt until I'd experienced all four seasons here." He's become a freak about saving energy. "A lot of people don't have that same consciousness, so I'm always running after people, turning off lights behind them."
The home is clad in weathered Sierra granite, which is fireproof and provides thermal mass. It's called "peeler" granite because it peels off the top of the bedrock, alleviating the need to quarry, and the irregular stones are challenging to work with. "In the end, though, the masons really appreciated doing something different," Gold says. "The people who worked on this house really understood and appreciated the principles and the commitment behind it, and they put an extra effort into their work because it was part of a larger whole that they really appreciated."
I felt the love.