SIM VAN DER RYN | West Marin
There is something ancient and poetic about building your own house, which is a privilege most of us will never have and an obligation we likely won’t suffer from. But those privileged enough or obliged to do so seize a particular power—the power to determine one’s own geography, one’s channel of movements through a space, the flow of water and electricity, and the boundaries—or lack thereof—between domesticity and wilderness. A tour of architect Sim Van Der Ryn’s house reveals a clear awareness of this power and a relentless determination to do good by it. He calls the main house on his Inverness property—a sprawling five acres of Bishop pine, native oak, and bay trees—the Eco Refuge, a three-story, traditional pole barn whose water supply is sourced from chemical-free, on-site wells, whose electricity is provided by solar panels, and whose wood stoves burn oak harvested from the surrounding grounds (Michael Pollan was his most recent houseguest). A house, which is a space intended to protect ourselves from the elements, does not exist apart from nature—this much is clear from Sim’s work—he is called both the father of ecological design and “Captain Compost”—, for one does not sustain the effort of creating an integrated ecosystem out of sheer whimsy, but out of fervent principle.
“When asked what inspires him...Sim says he is moved by “people coming together, coalescing,” and “seeing things grow, plants and people growing,” not by force, but by organic movement. These collaborations—fruitful connections between friends, between teachers and students, between government and laymen, between design and nature—are at the heart of Sim’s architectural practice.”
From the very beginning, the property was the center of collaboration. In 1969, when Sim first moved to Inverness, there was only one small cabin. His entire family—a wife and three kids—lived in a small, septagonal room, which is still a bedroom today. In 1971, Sim, who was teaching at Berkeley, designed a course called “Making a Place in the Country,” which he taught alongside former student and colleague Jim Campe. The course required students to spend three days per week on his Inverness property, working together to design and build basic living spaces—their own temporary shelters. Sim speaks of this time in his life fondly, recounting the sweetness of the refuge he found and not the thing he fled from—the Berkeley campus was in upheaval and turmoil. The students reclaimed old chicken coops to build an outhouse, a common space, and personal shelters. Sim recalls the treehouse that his student Paul built and the food the students foraged and cooked—there was a lot more of it back then, he says.
When asked what inspires him, Sim has a hard time answering—he says he’s just trying to stay healthy, combatting exhaustion, aches, and occasional bouts of vertigo—, but when he does arrive at an answer, he says he is moved by “people coming together, coalescing,” and “seeing things grow, plants and people growing,” not by force, but by organic movement. These collaborations—fruitful connections between friends, between teachers and students, between government and laymen, between design and nature—are at the heart of Sim’s architectural practice.
Despite all that he has achieved—he’s authored eight books, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, acted as California State Architect, and founded the Ecological Design Institute—, Sim’s design principles are not revolutionary for the sake of being revolutionary. They seem to be derived from something much more fundamental and therefore all the more vital: common sense. “Common sense,” beyond being sound and prudent judgment based on simple perception, also means: “the general sense of mankind or of a community” and “the faculty of primary truths”—these are the things that matter to Sim. Common sense, unlike purely incendiary theory or outcry, requires acting and living out one’s own principles, which is manifest in the way Sim lives: with the land and close to nature, blending into the landscape rather than making his mark on it.
Today Sim is wearing jeans and a cotton-candy-pink flannel under an off-white, knitted sweater, which, despite its thickness and largeness, does not disguise Sim’s small frame. He says we should pick apples off his trees and shows us his new steam convection oven—a Cuisinart—in which he is roasting Brussels sprouts. At 79, he still graciously poses for pictures and takes pride in configuring his Bluetooth speakers by himself. These days, he’s living in the smaller Ridge House on the property, which is much more efficient to heat when it’s cold out. In a few hours, he will go sing with Common Voice, Point Reyes’ community choir. His lifestyle is unsurprising—its very ordinariness and practicality align with his writings and teachings, but that’s just it—integrity is rarely a spectacle. There is one thing though, that is surprising, which is his dislike of the word “sustainability: “It doesn’t mean anything … It means a situation continues as it always has. I really dislike that word,” he says. “Systems change. They are constantly evolving.” You can’t just say, “I have a Prius and solar on the roof—everything will be ok.” He clarifies: “Well, everything won’t be ok.”