Home – Designed for You: Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects

From Residences to Wineries, Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects Designs with What’s Given

“Our style is that we design with what’s given. We never want a home to compete with a location or the site. It should complement and be in communication with its surrounds,” says Howard Backen, founder and principle of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects (BGK), an award-winning architectural design firm formed in 1996. Its two offices, one located in Sausalito near the San Francisco Bay waterfront and one in St. Helena, produce iconic residences, wineries, restaurants and civic spaces throughout the Bay Area, Wine Country and beyond. We caught up with Backen, and principle architect Luca Pignata, to discuss their design ethos and their first residential project together, Diamond Mountain Residence.

Located on a verdant hilltop overlooking Saint Helena and Calistoga, the Diamond Mountain Residence is an iconic BGK home, built to celebrate and respect its ethereal location. Surrounded by acre upon acre of vines producing award-winning cabernet sauvignon under its winery Constant Diamond Mountain Vineyard, the approximately 4,500-square foot home blurs the lines between winery and private retreat, and indoor and outdoor living. The residence, which was designed for the former owners, a radio tycoon and his wife, recently sold to an affluent buyer represented by Latife Hayson of Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty. The property was listed for $35 million.

Pignata recalls what it was like to visit the site for the first time, and to work on a project of such magnitude: “The size of the property and the scale of the project is much bigger than the architecture itself. It was a wonderful experience to dive into such a challenge.” The challenge was met in part by Pignata and Backen’s ability to work symbiotically with clients, a method that underlies all their work. “The clients that we’re dealing with are really smart. They get it, and you must listen. When you think about it, they’re extremely bright people and they’re there for a reason.”  ‘Extremely bright’ clientele include the likes of Robert Redford, the Mondavi family, Ellen DeGeneres and Ashton Kutcher, to name a few.

When asked which residence he’s most proud of in his career – there are over 100 private residences in their ever-growing portfolio – Backen hopes it will be the next one. “I never really think we’re there, ever. Everything is so intertwined and there is so much you don’t know, but you try to learn and get better. With each one you move forward and go to the next level.”

What’s BGK’s design ethos? Backen cannot be put in a box: “We don’t have a style,” he says proudly. “One thing that expresses what we do the most is that we basically open up the house as far as you can go.”

For Pignata, the work is about creating an open dialog between the land, the home and the client. “It’s about honesty. It’s about communication with the surrounding environment. A home should shelter, of course, but it should speak and communicate what is important to people. Even remind them of what’s important. You realize very fast that you have a big responsibility at that moment, and you are trying to create something that is respectful and will live with, and be in communication with, that environment.”

“This home, like many of our projects, is on a breathtaking scale,” says Pignata. “A residence of this caliber and clientele deserves the best representation and we’re very excited that a company like Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty represents them.”

Napa Valley Living

Napa Valley Living

A modern utopia for fine wines and the country’s renowned wine-making region, the Napa Valley is often referred to as the Mediterranean of the US. It is home to more than 500 wineries with 3.3 million visitors as reported in 2014. For visitors and residents alike, the Napa Valley region also has an abundance of attractions, boutiques, nightlife, festivals and more to enjoy. Fine dining is ubiquitous; Napa Valley is internationally recognized as having more restaurants with Michelin Stars per capita than any other wine region in the world. There is also a plethora of world class luxury lodging, wellness retreats, art galleries, mineral spas and natural hot springs. Just an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Valley is a must-see destination for anyone visiting or residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. View some of the most luxurious Napa Valley Vineyard estate properties below. Contact listing agent, Latife Hayson for more information.

8322 Franz Valley Road, Calistoga | Bellisimo Vineyard Estate

The Bellisimo Vineyard Estate adjoins the exquisite 500+- acre Montana estate, and is one of the valley’s most prized residences, perched atop a knoll surrounded by undulating hills planted with 70+- acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The sprawling 153+- acre gated ranch features two legal parcels, a modern Mediterranean 5,500+ Sq.Ft. main residence and guest house, designed by renowned architect Sandy Walker, 3 additional guest suites, an office, caretaker’s house and 4 rental homes and a barn. Beyond the terraced courtyard and central lawn lies a 53-foot infinity pool, spa, and an open-air pool house surrounded by established olive groves and gardens. A tennis court, walking paths, three-car garage and private pond/reservoir further the estate’s appeal, as do the panoramic views of the enveloping vineyards, forested woods, and surrounding hills. Click to watch the full property video.


999 Mee Lane, St Helena | Lagniappe Estate & Vineyard

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Known as Lagniappe Estate and Vineyards, this property derives its distinct and truly fitting name from the French/Creole word “lagniappe” (pronounced Lan Yap), meaning “a little something extra”. The property is comprised of three legal parcels, including a 2.84+- acre Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard with a history of grape sales to highly acclaimed wineries in the region, a 2,014+- square foot home on .81+- of an acre, and a 2,070+- square foot carriage house on 1.03+- acres. The main residence features three sets of copper-clad French doors opening onto marble terraces and a secret courtyard, and a stunning gourmet kitchen presented in the 2013 Annual Home and Garden Tour. The estate is furthered by the two-level carriage house with a multifunctional lower level able to accommodate three cars – currently housing two cars and a fitness/recreation room, a full bath with walk in shower, a pool suite/cabana, wine tasting room and a room with architectural plans for a 2,500-bottle wine cellar. A swimming pool and spa, potting shed, Claudia Schmit-landscaped grounds and 80-year old redwood groves only add to this captivating oasis. Click here to watch the full property video.

3040 Chiles Pope Valley Road, St Helena | Greeg Mountain Ranch

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This Napa Valley property is a 161+/- acre Vineyard Estate with approximately 4.57 acres of ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon vines that were planted in 2003. Managed by Pina Vineyard Management, the average yield over the past 5 years has been 11.8 tons. Yields in 2012 were 12.07 tons, 2013 was 15.3 tons and 2014 was 15.8 tons. Grapes have been consistently used by renowned Napa Valley winemakers. The property includes 4 parcels on a private mountainside with spectacular panoramic views overlooking Lake Hennessy and the valley floor. For buyers interested in vineyards only, an opportunity exists for a lot line adjustment that would separate the house from the vineyards allowing the house to be sold separately. A recent appraisal shows the value of the house and the approximate 5 acres it could sit on. The 5,337+- square foot custom craftsman style home, built in 2004, is off the grid, offering 4 en-suite bedrooms and 5 full baths. Other features of the property include a pool, spa, outdoor kitchen, a 4-stall barn, self-contained power & water systems, 24/7 security system & gated entry. Click here to watch the full property video.


1212 Bennett Lane, Calistoga  |  Serene Vineyard Hideaway

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Located on a rarely-found level lot of approximately seven acres, the estate features +-1.25 acres of Cabernet Franc vines at its southern, sun-soaked edge. The +-3,676 square foot residence is approached by a wooden bridge and stone gate opening to a gravel drive and round, shaded motor court surrounded by fecund gardens enveloping the residence. A mature olive grove and central path lead to the home’s courtyard entrance and grand foyer approached through double doors. An expansive backyard encourages indoor/outdoor living year-round. A sprawling lawn surrounds the central swimming pool while a wisteria-covered trellis offers a repose for al fresco dining located next to a built in-barbeque and stone-faced, wood burning fireplace. Rock-lined pathways meander through the grounds, inviting one to walk among the gardens, sitting areas and out to the vines. A three-car garage, ample storage space, two private wells and a seven-zone Lutron lighting system further add to this rare slice of paradise in wine country. Click here to watch the full property video.


To schedule a private tour of these remarkable Napa Valley Estates, visit LatifeHayson.com.

Dive In

With summer just around the corner, we find ourselves dreaming of balmy breezes, al fresco dining and plunging into azure waters. Face it, there’s no better way to enjoy the season than poolside. Inspired by this cool longing, we’ve put together a selection of our most stunning pool-centric properties currently on the market in Marin and beyond. This summer, Dive In.

Spanish Sparkler – 111 Hill Drive

Architect Jared Polsky designed this architecturally significant, five-bedroom, six-bathroom, gated property on coveted Hill Drive in Kentfield, CA. The extensive renovation drew from the original 1930s architecture, retaining elements such as the diamond shape theme echoed in the leaded glass windows and massive pocket doors, as well as coffered ceilings and period mica lighting. Our favorite summer time feature of the home is its 70-foot lap pool surrounded by sun-soaked terraces, a spa and adjacent pool house. The bucolic grounds also have sprawling lawns, a stone fountain, abundant rose and hydrangea gardens, vegetable gardens, a variety of fruit trees, and Japanese maples – all irrigated by a well. Contact Stephanie Lamarre for more information on this magnificent estate.

Palatial Poolside – 185 Gilmartin

Resort-like amenities abound in this gated, entirely private, and newly-refinished, approximately 14,000 square foot residence atop Tiburon, CA. In addition to the sauna and steam room, tennis court, large level lawns and manicured gardens, it’s the curved pool and spa that steal our attention. Image a sparkling swim with sweeping views of Mount Tamalpais, Sausalito, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco and the East Bay. Few homes in Marin County can offer the rare combination of privacy, captivating views and resort living like this seven bedroom, seven full and four half bath modern estate. Contact Bill Bullock or Lydia Sarkissian to schedule a private viewing.

Craftsman Cooler – 201 Linden Lane

This 2.06 acres gated estate known as “Deer Crossing” was designed in 1906 to entertain on a grand scale and sits on a prominent hill in San Rafael, CA overlooking the Dominican and Mount Tamalpais. The extensive two-acre grounds feature a stunning swimming pool with diving board, spa, outdoor fireplace, barbecue and two pool-side cabanas lending resort-like grandeur to the property. A rose garden, olive orchard, and potting shed further add to the fecund grounds. Extensively renovated in recent years, this magnificent property is truly one of the very finest estates in Marin County for summer entertaining and outdoor-living. To learn more information about this estate, contact Oliva Hsu Decker.

Water’s Edge – 101 Rutherford Hill

“Round Hill”, as this stunning compound is called, was created with the concept of a private, exquisite and exclusive resort. Ideally located between Napa, Yountville and downtown St. Helena, and minutes from the finest, world-class Napa wineries, Round Hill occupies a 21+ acre hilltop overlooking the incomparable wine producing region of the Napa Valley, and is within walking distance to the world famous Auberge du Soleil. The jaw-dropping view is best from the sun-drenched, view-side terrace with covered outdoor kitchen and, our most coveted feature, the sparkling infinity pool with unsurpassed views of the richly verdant Napa Valley. Contact Bill Bullock or Lydia Sarkissian for more information on this Napa Valley estate.