The Artists’ Green Orchard

When the 175-acre Villa Montalvo estate in Saratoga was bequeathed to the state of California in 1930, the owner stipulated that the new park continue nurturing music, art, literature and architecture. One result was the creation, in 1942, of the oldest artists’ residency program west of the Mississippi.

In 1998, Villa Montalvo’s board of trustees decided to double its intellectual harvest by replacing a defunct orchard of plums with 700- to 900-square-foot cottages customized for specific artists. The new Orchard of Artists project will increase annual residencies from 30 to nearly 70, while simultaneously serving as a model of green design using next-century concepts of creativity and collaboration.

An artist’s conception of the environmentally designed Villa Montalvo cabins, which will be completed in 2001.

Coordinating eight different architects to make use of environmentally friendly design principles in the construction of 10 cottages and a commons on an historic landmark site, within a limited budget, was an ambitious undertaking. “This is a groundbreaking effort both literally and figuratively,” acknowledges Don Stastny of Portland, Oregon-based StastnyBrun Architects, designer of the memorial for the Oklahoma bombing. “It’s intended to be a textbook case of 21st century design.”

“We’re standardizing construction as much as possible with such different buildings, while trying to achieve maximum long-term energy efficiency among old-growth trees and heritage plants,” explains Stastny. Green elements include high fly ash content concrete, energy-efficient windows, recycled insulation, soy-product countertops and farmed wood beam construction—not the usual supplies found at home improvement stores.

Green resource planning consultant Larry Strain of Siegel & Strain Architects in Emeryville, California recommended farmed wood as it minimizes pollution and encourages lumber companies to engage in greener practices. Also incorporated will be a natural sound barrier for the composers’ cottages and solar collectors and passive lighting for the visual artists’ dwellings.

“Paint and carpet choices are crucial,” Strain says, “but the cabins must also meet the artists’ needs. We’re striving to go beyond what’s state-mandated to choose the most durable, cost-efficient materials, such as metal roofs which last 50 years instead of 20.” Going green has helped build community support, with over $2.1 million of the $6 million campaign already raised. Groundbreaking took place in the late summer of 2000, and completion will occur by the end of 2001.

“Although these are extremely contemporary buildings, especially compared to the original Villa built in 1912, both the Heritage Committee and City Planning Committee members approved the plans ‘as is’ on the first presentation—a record here in Saratoga,” says a grateful Stastny. For at least another century, artists will be able to follow their muses within a sustainable environment of natural beauty.