Robin Engelman spent three decades in Los Angeles, hoping for a sense belonging. “I never quite felt at home,” said Dr. Engelman, 56, a psychologist. “I was raised in rural Pennsylvania and wanted a smaller town that was more green and more friendly, with seasons and trees. I wanted to find home.”
Her husband, Tom Engelman, a film producer who has worked on movies including “The Last Samurai” and “Pitch Black,” was born and raised in L.A., but was willing to consider a change. “It was largely driven by Robin, given my lifestyle,” said Mr. Engelman, 62, though he shared her dream of living in a beautiful spot where the surroundings would provide “a daily shock-and-awe experience.”
They dreamed for years about real estate and looked at several houses. They stumbled upon Mill Valley in the early part of 2019, while driving north to visit their family in Marin County. “We hit this grove where we were looking through the trees with the God light,” Mr. Engelman said, describing the way the beams of sunlight sliced through the majestic redwoods.
They also saw a ramshackle 800-square foot cabin on a 0.1-acre parcel that was up for sale. “Robin just said, ‘I’m home,’” Mr. Engelman recalled. “It was over.”
They had little time to inspect the property and weren’t able to get inside before Dr. Engelman had to return to Los Angeles. They decided to take a chance and purchased it for $836,000.
“It was a leap,” Mr. Engelman said — especially as they both had busy careers in the city and needed to consider their son, Reese, now 13. They also have two older children, who had already moved away. “I wouldn’t say we are the kind of people who always make leaps like that, but in this particular case, we did.”
They used the cabin as their second home while they explored the property and planned their next steps. They sold their Santa Monica home and moved into a nearby apartment rental.
“We did find out that the house was old without being historic — and falling down,” Mr. Engelman said, meaning it was ripe to be demolished and replaced. “It allowed me to pursue a dream I’ve had my whole life: to build something with our own vision, from scratch.”
Despite their enthusiasm and experience in remodeling homes, they were not architects. They hired an architect to help them realize their vision. Richardson Pribuss Architects, a local company that has built many modern homes in the region.
Heidi Richardson was a founding partner of this firm and explained to them that the house’s footprint would be dictated by the existing landscape. “The site itself determined the shape of things, because we didn’t want to cut down one redwood tree — those are sacred,” Ms. Richardson said. “By the time we obeyed the setbacks and dodged the redwood trees, this was pretty much the shape that was left.”
The resultant 1,600-square-foot, two-story house has three bedrooms and measures 1,600 feet. It is interwoven between tree trunks and features windows and decks for stunning views. Some of the windows deliberately frame views straight into tree trunks, Mr. Engelman said, “to feel like we’re right there, living with these creatures.”
The longer views out into the forest make the lot feel larger than it is, Ms. Richardson said, describing the concept as “borrowed landscape.”
A circular skylight over the living room — a request from young Reese, after seeing photos of modern homes with circular windows in nearby Sea Ranch — allows you to “look up and see a circle of trees,” Mr. Engelman said. Also, “the light from both the sun and moon travels around the living room floor, day and night.”
To preserve tree roots, the architects built the house on a slab foundation higher than the forest floor. They avoided using wood for the exterior and instead used cement board and painted metal siding. The decking is made of a composite.
They used a lot of wood inside, including white oak flooring, cabinetry, and a fireplace surround from charred shu-sugi-ban cedar. Porcelanosa tile looks and feels like hardwood strips in the bathrooms.
After the old cottage was destroyed in June 2020, it took almost a year to build the new house. It was completed in January 2022 at an estimated cost of $600 per square feet. Although their builder, Hayes & Associates, led the charge, Mr. Engelman threw himself into the project, visiting the site almost every day and laboring alongside his contractors.
“I came out of it with neuropathy in both hands that was just crippling, from using sledgehammers and jackhammers and such,” he said. “I had tennis elbow in both arms. I sustained shoulder injuries. I was an absolute mess for about six months after construction.”
“But I must say,” Dr. Engelman interjected, “he said it was the happiest time of his life.”
Now that Mr. Engelman has recovered, the couple have had time to fully appreciate what they’ve accomplished. Every morning, Dr. Engelman said, they look out the windows and can hardly believe their eyes: “It’s ridiculously magical.”
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