Like many people who build a home for themselves, Ed and Julie Divita wanted to make sure theirs catered to their passions.
Mr. Divita, 57, dreamed of a stand-alone music studio filled with the guitars, drums and keyboards he plays in jam sessions with his grown children. Ms. Divita, also 57, is an equestrian vaulting coach and competitor who often represents the United States at the World Equestrian Games with her daughters, and she wanted a stable for horses.
But before they could build anything, the Divitas had to find the right place: a big, rural lot in the San Francisco Bay Area with ample distance from neighbors — more than they had in their previous home in Emerald Hills, Calif.
“Our lifestyle is a little noisy, because we have four kids and we’ve always had at least two dogs, and we’re all musicians,” said Mr. Divita, a partner at Discovery Land Company, a developer. “Between trumpets, electric guitars and basses, we were a little hard on our neighbors. And for a long time, we had the dream that we could have horses and a farm of our own.”
For years, they watched the market and kept Ms. Divita’s horses at a stable not far from their house, occasionally making lowball offers on lots that didn’t pan out. Then one day in 2012, while Ms. Divita was competing in France, Mr. Divita was riding his motorcycle in Portola Valley, Calif., and saw a for-sale-by-owner sign at the edge of a driveway. He turned into the property and discovered a steep site with a forest of oak trees at the top, a grassy meadow below and a house with severe structural problems.
“It was sliding down the hill,” Mr. Divita said.
He struck up a conversation with the owner, who had been trying to sell the two-and-a-half-acre property for more than a year, and negotiated a deal to buy it on the spot for $2.125 million.
When Ms. Divita returned from France, “Ed picked me up at the airport and we came straight here,” she said. “The existing house was horrific, but the property was glorious.”
They searched online for an architecture firm to design a new house and discovered Field Architecture, based in Palo Alto. The Divitas admired Field’s modern homes constructed with rugged materials, including a hillside house in Portola Valley. But it was when Stan Field, who runs the firm with his son, Jess, visited the property that they realized they had found their match.
“He went to the site and hung out, day and night, with a pencil and a white pad, and did all kinds of sketches of what the possibilities were,” Mr. Divita said. “There were about 150 sketches on three-by-five white paper. He just blew us away with all of his creative ideas.”
During the months that followed, the Fields, working with the landscape architecture firm Ground Studio, developed plans for a 3,838-square-foot house among the oaks near the top of the north-facing slope, along with a detached, 731-square-foot music studio linked by an outdoor deck and pool. A hay barn modeled on a traditional bank barn and a connected stable are positioned farther down the hill, where Ms. Divita’s three horses can enjoy the meadow.
“The first rule was that we weren’t going to remove any of these majestic oaks,” Jess Field said.
“We were threading the needle between oaks, and working with the topography,” said Bernard Trainor, the founder of Ground Studio. “We didn’t lose one tree on the project, which is kind of incredible.”
To work around the trees, the architects designed concrete foundations that stopped short of the tree roots and allowed living spaces above to cantilever out among the branches. They also split the house into two volumes — one with four bedrooms and a mudroom, the other with the living, dining and kitchen areas — connected by a small, glass-box entryway.
The barnlike volumes are clad in cedar on the outside and have interiors with concrete floors, exposed steelwork, reclaimed Douglas fir paneling and walls of windows looking out over the land. “Those are basically light scoops,” Jess Field said. “They just grab all of the natural daylight.”
The roof over the primary living spaces also has a monitor — a raised portion lined with clerestory windows — designed to capture sunlight. “We let the space be tall, like the trees reaching for the light,” Stan Field said. “Then we also get the ventilation for cooling.”
The Divitas’ interior designer, Lisa Lorino, used hardwearing, low-maintenance materials for the built-ins and furniture, including cabinetry with crate-like drawers and zinc counters, and fabrics that wouldn’t easily be destroyed by the couple’s two dogs, three cats and muddy boots.
“The overall vision was definitely to return to the materials of the barn,” Ms. Lorino said.
Construction started in late 2014 and took about two years to complete at a total cost of roughly $3.5 million, including fees, permits and furnishings. Mr. Divita served as the general contractor and brought in friends and business associates to perform much of the work. The couple’s children — Eddie, 32, Ali, 30, Jack, 26, and Tessa, 21 — also pitched in, dismantling and recycling parts of the old house and laying tubing for a radiant heating-and-cooling system in the concrete floors.
As the project progressed, the Divitas came to regard the Fields more as friends than hired help. “Our working sessions often became four- and five-hour storytelling sessions,” Ms. Divita said. “The whole design process was so much fun.”
In the end, the building of their modernist farmhouse ended up feeling a little like a 21st-century barn raising. “It was a family affair,” Mr. Divita said, “with friends.”