Published April 15, 2008
Volume 16, Number 4

Architect's New Mission Uses Agriculture to Integrate Open Space and Development

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

As with most of his other undertakings, Doug Dahlin, founder of the architecture and planning firm Dahlin Group, is putting a personal stamp on the agrarian idyll that many prospering entrepreneurs have embraced lately. (Witness the proliferation of wine labels that sound like Silicon Valley venture capital firms.) Where Dahlin’s trajectory arcs in a different dimension is its emphasis on fostering the peaceful coexistence of agriculture and housing in an inviting pastoral setting.

To that end last year he and his wife purchased Triple Creek Farm, a 300-acre working spread in Capay Valley, in western Yolo County, 30 miles north of Vacaville and a few miles from the Cache Creek casino. Home to walnut groves and rippling fields of alfalfa, oats, and wheat, Triple Creek represents an opportunity for the architect to pursue his interest in the slow and local healthy food movement—while changing the dynamics of land use.

“Farming, as I’m learning, produces such cheap food because of huge-scale mechanization,” he relates. “Today’s farm is roughly 10 times the size it was a generation ago. Our farm, at 300 acres, could have supported a family well in the 1940s, but to meet today’s standards it would have to be 3,000 acres.” Many farmers, facing pressure to expand for efficiency’s sake, decide instead to exit the business, selling off their land for development. Dahlin’s goal is “to get to a different mode of operation,” avoiding the drastic changes that ensue when farmland surrenders to bulldozers.

An Early Vision
His passion for open space has been nurtured by 30 years of community planning, but Dahlin saw the possibilities for alignment between good land stewardship and development early in life. In high school during the construction boom in the 1960s, he worked for an Orange County builder who was putting up custom homes in the middle of an avocado grove. “He took out only one of every four trees,” creating an aesthetic with staying power, he recalls.

The architect got his first chance to fit some of the puzzle pieces together when, after getting his degree from Berkeley, he built a house out of recycled material for the Bolinas commune to which he and his wife JoAnne (with whom he had been an item since high school) belonged. His Birkenstock days as a home contractor and designer were soon eclipsed when his mentor from southern California, looking to expand into the Bay Area, recruited him to design a custom house in Contra Costa County in 1975. Further work together led to highly visible commissions in Blackhawk (he first designed the clubhouse and now has one-quarter of all the residences to his credit), and from there the firm’s reputation for creating gracious luxury homes took hold.  

While he didn’t deliberately set out to enter the high-end market, he acknowledges it goes with the territory. “A custom house is upscale by definition,” he asserts, so it’s practically a given that any architect who gets into home design when young will be working in this rarefied atmosphere. Still, it’s not the exclusive thrust of his work. Even though it’s the Blackhawk association that first comes to mind, the firm is “quite active” in the affordable segment in conjunction with some of the area’s nonprofits, Dahlin says.

Overall, the 180-person firm tracks out at about 40 percent housing, 30 percent community development (defined as land planning and urban design), and 30 percent nonresidential (clubs, hotels, and public recreation facilities), with a sprinkling of office/retail and “other” spaces. 

Looking East
Over the past decade Dahlin once again moved in front of the power curve, in 2003 establishing an office in Beijing, at a client’s urging. “Ironically, we thought we would be enjoying the Olympic-related building boom,” he notes, but instead commissions started rolling in from more than a dozen other nascent Chinese cities. Convenient transportation—Beijing is a “great air hub,” he reports, and getting to client destinations is a lot like traveling around the western U.S., with most flights not much longer than three hours—and today’s electronic communications make it almost as easy to conduct business there as at home. “Today, intellectual and creative products, which is what we produce, have virtually no shipping cost. We push a button and send files to an ftp site, and they’re picked up and printed in Beijing.”

Dahlin’s isn’t the only American firm to recognize the opportunity. “I am not alone over there,” he observes. “Our competitive colleagues in home design and community planning are also involved. We compete with almost the same players as we do in locally or in the States. It’s very interesting to run into them occasionally at breakfast in the big hotels.”  

As for actually doing business in China, “it’s quite true there, as it is just about anywhere, that you need to develop good working relationships and strong rapport with your clients,” he continues. Then he cites another universal rule: “Once they have turned our talent into actual profits, the alliance gets very strong. The trust level grows as they make money from our work.” 

Meanwhile, the cross-fertilization among cultures is one he relishes and encourages others to share.   “Americans need to ‘get out more’ and see the world,” he advises. “Not a week goes by that someone from our office here isn’t in China, and we have Chinese clients here almost every week. They are very interested in touring the area and getting new ideas.”

Does he foresee the same fate for his industry as what happened in the manufacturing arena? “Creativity is a U.S. export,” he replies. “Creative fields like architecture and interior design provide an export opportunity for us, just as film-making has.” What he does predict, though, is the movement “toward quality-of-life and income parity among professionals all over the world. It’s getting harder and harder to see why someone working in Beijing is paid so much less than here, because the product is so transferable.”

Dahlin’s experience in China is hardly his only venture in the new global economy. In the past year alone there was an urban redevelopment project in Tripoli, Libya, and a “significant” upscale residential project around Moscow’s international airport, Domodedovo.  “We were invited along with a couple of other Bay Area firms to participate in the planning and architecture for an equestrian-oriented, high-end, single-family gated community,” he relates.

Full Circle
Thinking about his latest design interests, he again mentions the open-space aesthetic cultivated in his teens. Now he intends to use the learning from the farm activity to help integrate agriculture more closely into land planning efforts. “It’s easy to envision living by tree crops, and it doesn’t have to be just high-end, estate houses. It can also be clusters of homes,” he points out.

Doing this will lend strong support to agriculture, using fewer chemicals on smaller pieces of land, making delivery more organic and less mechanized, he says, noting that it’s a business opportunity and a personal passion at the same time. “In a way I’ve come full circle from my hippie days working in the commune. All that is now tied together,” he muses.


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