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[Photo by BUILD LLC]

Planned communities are a double-edge sword.  The greatest models exemplify harmony with nature, consistency of good design and intentional living.  The worst examples, however , miss the boat on all counts; they impose dull, repetitive forms plunked down incongruently on a highly manipulated landscape.  But this isn’t intended to be a rant.  The point of interest for us regarding planned communities is that it is not the concept of planning itself that determines the success or failure of the final product.  That a community is “planned” indicates almost nothing to us about the quality of the community.  As with most things, it is the people and their values that is critical.

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[Photo by BUILD LLC]

Recently, on a trip through northern California, we visited one of the best examples of a planned community in the United States.  Sea Ranch extends for approximately 10 miles up the rocky coast of northern California, about 100 miles north of San Francisco along State Route 1.

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[Photo by BUILD LLC]

The development includes over 1,200 housing units, although you’d hardly know as they are so well integrated into the landscaping.  The original design team for the community planning  included Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.  The primary design philosophy of Sea Ranch is to “live lightly on the land” which aims to minimize the visual as well as physical impact upon the landscape.

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[Condominium #1 photo by BUILD LLC]

Condominium #1 (above) was the first built work at Sea Ranch and was designed by Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull & Whitaker.  The modest cluster of condominiums includes a common interior courtyard and uses shared architecture to shelter from wind and sun.  Individual units are designed to preserve views and privacy.

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[Photo by BUILD LLC]

In terms of the architecture, the structures at Sea Ranch conform to a rigid set of aesthetic codes.  Siding is typically clear sealed cedar, roof lines are tight to the envelope, lights are baffled, bays and nooks cantilever out from the main volume.  These modest houses resist stylistic trends and sit tight to the ground.  Influenced by the original barns on the property, the new structures fit in nicely with the old.

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[Photo by BUILD LLC]

The landscaping at Sea Ranch is extraordinary.  Perimeter fences are prohibited and, to the visual delight of a visitor, it’s not clear where one property begins and another ends.  Plants are kept to indigenous species and a herd of sheep is brought in seasonally to keep the grass cut low to the ground and reduce the threat of fire during the summer.

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[Sea Ranch Lodge photo by BUILD LLC]

The Sea Ranch Lodge allows visitors to stay on the grounds, experience the architecture and take long walks through community.  The lodge restaurant allows for relaxing meals while watching the waves come into shore.  All in all, it’s a good way to “reset” the human spirit.

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[Photo by BUILD LLC]

So back to people and values.  The Sea Ranch community has given up the appearance of owned territory (no fences or boundaries) in lieu of an open, accessible, flowing landscape.  They have traded in opulence for design discipline and are wisely aware that what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.  They understand that small individual compromises make for a much greater quality of life.  As architects, designers and people who just think an awful lot about our built environment and how we live – Sea Ranch is about as good as it gets and we have a tremendous amount to learn from it.  Get down there when you can.

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[Photo by BUILD LLC]