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Rocking out in the Redwoods

Lauren Murrow | October 7, 2014 | Story

Wanna buy a barn? Architect Neal Schwartz’s client—a music lover (who asked not to be named)—was set on building a private recording studio in one. So Schwartz’s firm, Schwartz and Architecture, contacted Heritage Barns. “It’s totally a mail-order barn company,” says Schwartz. The company dismantles old barns in upstate New York, ships them to Texas to grade the lumber, then reassembles them elsewhere. Three rough-and-tumble Texans pulled up to the forested Sonoma County property with the timber frame in the back of their truck, Schwartz recalls. “Three days later, this mysterious old barn frame from New York was standing in the middle of the California redwoods.”

The recording studio was intended for an empty clearing surrounded by trees. “The real challenge was how not to ruin it,” says Schwartz. Literally: While the goal was to tuck the studio within the grove, disturbing the roots of a redwood can kill the entire tree. So the architects enlisted an arborist and a structural engineer to float the entire barn several feet off the ground on a pier structure.

Then the designers began collaborating with the acoustic engineer, Tom Schindler. “We said, ‘you tell us the parameters and we’ll design it,’” says Schwartz. “Every architectural detail began first with sound quality.” For starters, no two walls could be parallel—in fact, they had to be angled seven degrees—and the tracking room and isolation booths all needed to have clear sight lines into the control room.

One thing that Schwartz’s team discovered about sound-baffling material: it’s ugly. “It looks like egg-crate foam,” says Schwartz. They wrapped the douglas fir frame in slotted hemlock wainscoting, which hides the acoustic panels and dissipates sound.

Soundproof sliding glass doors lead to a 25-by-18-foot porch—or stage, if you wish—and picture windows open to the surrounding woods. Though all that double- and triple-paned glass posed an acoustic challenge, the owner decided to forgo a totally controlled, antiseptic sound. After all, “Why put a recording studio in the middle of a redwood grove if you don’t feel connected to nature?” asks Schwartz.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco magazine

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