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Douglas Fir in California Vacation Homes

May 3, 2011 by | Jennifer | There have been 0 comments

With summer on the horizon we’re thinking about how Douglas fir is put to use in vacation homes old and new. We’re traveling to California -- in this post and future posts -- to start our adventure. As part of the Douglas-fir’s native habitat, how has its lumber been used in California homes?

The California landscape, from its majestic mountains to its sandy beaches, has long beckoned vacationers as a perfect getaway destination. And when it comes to building a vacation home, Douglas fir has been a material of choice for California cabins. A native West Coast species that’s both attractive and durable, Douglas fir echoes the best qualities of the California landscape and brings them into the home.

From the Douglas Fir Plywood Association vacation home catalog.

For much of America’s history, having two homes—one for daily life and the other solely for vacationing—was feasible only for the wealthy. It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that average Americans began thinking about owning a second home. According to a 2004 article in Old House Journal, “The mid-20th century was the era of the ‘second everything,’ when postwar prosperity made second televisions, second bathrooms, and second cars the just desserts of middle-class American life. Signs at hardware stores and ads in popular magazines took the idea to the next step, declaring, ‘Every family needs two homes!...one for the work-week, one for pure pleasure.’”

When the idea that vacation homes could be affordable and accessible caught on, Douglas fir was the material many Americans turned to in order to build them. The Douglas Fir Plywood Association was one of the first trade groups to tap into the growing market. In 1958 it issued a book called “Leisure-Time Homes of Fir Plywood” that included plans for five different models of vacation house. The plans relied extensively on use of pre-formed Douglas fir beams and panels, for a streamlined construction method that owners could do themselves. The publisher promised that the simple Douglas fir panels would age well, weathering the home “into a glistening castle of driftwood.”

Douglas Fir Plywood Association beach house model.

Author Chad Randi, in an article written for the Society of Architectural Historians, said that these early, modest vacation homes, with their reliance on natural materials like Douglas fir, “exhibited a harmony with nature and blurring of the distinction between interior and exterior through the creative use of glazing and natural, unfinished materials.”

As the ‘50s moved into the ‘60s, California vacation homes began to get more elaborate. The Sea Ranch, in Sonoma, Calif., is a planned vacation community developed in 1960s by architects Lawrence Halperin, Charles Moore, William Turnbull and Joseph Esherick. The houses were intentionally designed to reflect the natural surroundings of the Northern California coast. They used local lumber mills to supply Douglas-fir and Redwood as the main building materials, and the homes feature unpainted or muted stains on the exterior, allowing the natural materials to blend with the beauty of the landscape. Interiors of the many of the homes also feature floor-to-ceiling vertical Douglas floor paneling as a way to bring the natural world inside. A 2008 article in the New York Times described a visit to the Sea Ranch, calling a Turnbull-designed house featuring Douglas fir interiors “poetry in wood.”

Now, contemporary Californians are restoring the beauty of some of the mid-century vacation homes that have been neglected over the years. In Encinitas, Calif., stucco and sheetrock had covered up the original Douglas fir of a beach house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The new owner stripped away the decades of neglect and the house now features exposed Douglas-fir beams and soaring ceilings. The cabinets and walls also feature Douglas-fir, in a deliberate effort to use as many of the original natural building materials as possible, according to a 2010 article in California Home & Design.

Designers of new vacation homes as well seek to mimic earlier generations’ use of Douglas-fir in new construction, while using reclaimed wood when possible to create a sense of history. A vacation house in Stinson Beach constructed in 2007 features reclaimed Douglas fir on the ceilings—boards that were originally part of the gymnasium at Stanford University, built in 1914 and deconstructed in 2004.

In 2011, the California Home and Design award for residential architecture went to a mountain home in the Sugar Bowl, one of the oldest of California’s Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts. Hearkening back to early vacation home plans, designer John Maniscalco went for a simple, geometric design with extensive use of native materials—although this modern 3,000-plus square foot house is a far cry from those early do-it-yourself vacation homes. Narrow-planked Douglas fir covers the ceiling and huge windows frame the snowy, pine-dotted hillside surroundings.

From tiny mountain A-frames to luxurious beachside getaways, Douglas fir continues to be prized by Californians as a material to make vacation homes as beautiful inside as the landscape outside.

- Jennifer Rouse

This post was posted in All Entries, History and Interest and was tagged with Douglas-fir, Douglas fir flooring, douglas fir floors, California vacation homes, douglas fir paneling

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