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The Napa Valley House

The renovation of Dennis Duffy's 1906 Victorian farmhouse in the vineyards of northern California included the expansion and updating of the home's dark and dated the kitchen to take advantage of spectacular views.

The stunning vistas and rich agricultural and cultural history of Napa Valley proved irresistible to us back in the winter of 1994-95. If only we'd known about the rain.

The subject house was a simple hip-roofed, two-story, four-square farmhouse built in 1906 by owner Dennis Duffy's grandfather. The eight-acre property—devoted to Duffy's "pick-and-cut" Christmas tree farm and small vineyard—was in the heart of Napa Valley, just north of the town of Napa. Solid but modest, the house sat on the valley floor surrounded by vineyards and by mountain ridges to the east and west. We wanted a house that spoke to the valley's rich history, and the Duffy property met that criterion perfectly.

We joined forces with prominent local architect Jon Lail and top contractor Jim Nolan. On our to-do list was shoring up the home's shaky foundation, updating its 30-year-old electrical, plumbing and heating systems and replacing its tired roof. The main emphasis of the renovation, however, was to expand and upgrade the house's dark and dated kitchen. Architect Lail's brief was to make the room bigger and brighter, opening up the space to take full advantage of the spectacular views. Lail's plan required pushing out the structure's load-bearing northwest corner walls while still providing the second story adequate support. The resulting glass-enclosed breakfast nook promised to be a beautiful space.

But before we touched a single wall, we took advantage of an offer from one of the country's best virtual reality experts, David Munson of the giant architectural firm HOK. This was back in this technology's earlier days, and the highly nuanced, remarkably lifelike fly-through Munson built of the proposed space was truly sensational. Beyond its visual tour de force, it provided us with important information about how the space would work. When we saw the negative impact of a proposed support column, we decided to design it out of the building, even though that meant some tricky engineering.

And then the skies opened. The rain came down 22 days in a row that February; 52 inches fell in one month; the nearby Napa River leapt its banks. Contractor Nolan and crew persevered, however, working in the mud to pour new foundation walls, frame up the new kitchen and make the structure weathertight. Scene after scene was shot with cast and crew increasingly sodden. And then, a week before our wrap, the skies turned blue, the sun reappeared and the mustard bloomed in all its glory. Dennis got his breakfast nook just in time to lake in the views that lured us to Napa Valley, and we went back to Boston dry and with fond memories of wine country.

Other highlights of the series included:

  • tours of several noted vineyards and an old-fashioned cooperage, and a visit with a crew digging a wine-aging cave for a new winery
  • a look at rammed-earth construction, an old technology reborn
  • a tour of a state-of-the-art wine cellar
  • a visit to the factory that makes the heat-reflecting plastic film used in the house's new energy-efficient windows
  • an explanation of California's tough energy code, which looks at each building as a system to judge its overall efficiency.