Text By Lisa McEwen | Photos by Steve Cory
any Tulare County residents associate Rocky Hill with idyllic views and challenging terrain for walking, biking and running. While that certainly holds true, Marlene and Marty Mitchell also utilize the south-facing slope of the foothill as a foundation for their contemporary, Scandinavian-inspired home.
That foundation brings a bevy of benefits, mostly because they utilize the naturally occurring temperatures of the foothill to help them efficiently heat and cool their 4,500-square-foot home using geothermal technology. But they also get the bonus of amazing sunsets, visits by varied wildlife and the sought-after quiet of country living.
High school love
In 1981, Marlene departed her native Denmark for the first time in her life and arrived in Tulare as a foreign exchange student. It was at Tulare Western High School that she met classmate Marty Mitchell. Marlene graduated with the Class of 1982, Marty with the Class of 1983, and they married in 1984. Their first child, Dustin, was born in California, while daughter Zandra was born in Denmark. The family split their children’s formative years between the U.S. and Denmark, which allowed Marty and the kids to attain “a fair grasp on the Danish language,” the couple said.
The family returned permanently in 1992 when they learned that Marty’s father had been killed in a farming accident. Marty took over the family farming operation, which he continues to oversee today.
But their connection to Denmark runs deep to this day, and family members travel to the U.S. regularly for lengthy stays with the Mitchells. They feel right at home upon arrival, as the hallmark design styles of the Scandinavian (referring to Sweden, Norway and Denmark) aesthetic are visible throughout the home: white walls, wood floors, modern furniture and no clutter.
The style is simple and minimal, functional and accessible, according to themoderndane.com. “At its heart, Scandinavian home design centers on simple yet impactful ways of improving daily life, adding design to the ordinary,” according to the website.
One of the many ways that the Mitchell home achieves this look is its use of natural light with several sets of floor-to-ceiling windows, affording stellar views of the valley floor and adjacent foothills. An appreciation for nature also shines through in every floor of the home with extensive use of houseplants and natural textiles. It is this appreciation for nature that inspired the couple when working on their floor plan.
Marlene said she took the lead on design of the home, looking at hundreds of floor plans before compiling features she liked into their own space. Marty served as the contractor during construction, directing the project and hiring subcontractors.
“I am pleased to say that I feel like I got it right,” Marlene said. “Over the course of our first year here, I knew this is what I wanted. I love the openness, with lots of direct and indirect light.”
Upkeep is quick and easy, she said. “Even though it is a large house, it is not hard to keep clean.” (Not an easy feat while living in the country!)
The home is three levels — each at 1,500 feet with the same footprint. The main and second floors are the living quarters, and the basement features storage, a movie theater and an extra bedroom. The floors are connected by stairs, locally fabricated by Les’ Pipe & Steel, whose industrial design was inspired by those seen in packinghouses. The home also features many other fabrications, including projects completed by TC Iron.
Minimizing impact on the environment was key for the Mitchells and thus their choice to use ICF (insulated concrete forms) during construction, creating walls that provide natural insulation for the home. The blocks are visible to guests in the basement, where the styrofoam exterior was peeled away to expose the LEGO-like structures.
Marlene is proud to say that the home’s internal temperature does not fluctuate much, and they are able to heat and cool the entire home when necessary with just one HVAC unit. They also applied coating to their windows — many of which face west — to block intense sun rays. Window shades that complement the Scandinavian aesthetic can be pulled for a few hours a day when needed in the summer.
The home also has a SIPS roof, a feature Marty researched and executed. Structural insulated panels are high-quality foam core panels suitable for exterior wall and roof systems.
“It is a very energy-efficient home,” Marlene said. “We hardly have any power bills.”
Anyone who has embarked on a construction project knows that obstacles are to be expected. The couple encountered a few. Because they used construction methods that are atypical for the area, getting the home to pass inspection was more challenging. With patience, research and a fair amount of educating, they made it through and moved in after 15 months of construction. Living onsite in a double-wide mobile home made it easier to keep an eye on the project.
Their second issue was salty water. A few years after moving in, and in the middle of the last multi-year drought, their water quality crashed. “It was off-the-charts salty,” Marlene said. An extensive and expensive desalination system had to be installed in the basement.
Marty said they lost 16 mature trees in their extensive, drought-tolerant landscaping. Stumps are visible throughout the yard but are masked by fast-growing bamboo and eucalyptus trees as well as plenty of rocks excavated during the construction process.
“We both agree we could never live in town after living here.”
A welcoming couple with a global view, the Mitchells know that their home sits on a popular yet grueling loop for runners and cyclists and, as such, encourage athletes to stop for water and a shady break anytime.
In addition to offering respite to weary cyclists and runners, the Mitchells have opened their home and hearts to many travelers.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they offered a bedroom suite as an Airbnb, most recently rented by a long-term medical worker from South Africa. Over the years, they also have hosted many Europeans who are in the area to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
The couple holds a special place in their hearts for a foreign exchange student from Denmark who was on full scholarship to Fresno State University thanks to the Danish Creamery Foundation. August enjoyed staying with the Mitchells on weekends, when he could enjoy traditional Danish foods prepared by Marlene, who trained as a chef before becoming an education specialist at the Tulare County Office of Education.
The kitchen is a gathering place in most homes, and the Mitchells is no different. Sleek, contemporary cabinets are the main feature. Marlene is proud to say that her daughter’s swim team put them together in exchange for shared pizzas. Natural light floods the space from windows, French doors and bay windows. The kitchen flows into a dining area with a large kitchen table and a relaxing great room filled with furniture from the couple’s two transatlantic moves.
“I don’t mind mixing it up,” Marlene said. On the wall, a photograph of aebelskivers, traditional Danish pancakes, being cooked over an open fire is a memento that helps the couple remember their many years spent overseas.
When the couple is not indoors looking out, they are enjoying their extensive landscaping, which features several shaded gathering spots, a lap pool and a pond filled with turtles, fish and frogs.
“On this side of the valley, we get really nice sunsets,” said Marty, who continues to knock off impressive projects around the home with his construction background. He is also fond of their recent addition, a pickleball court.
During the pandemic, playing pickleball has been a welcomed respite and safe way to interact with friends. “It has earned its cost,” Marlene said. “It is our favorite pastime.”
Guests may notice a hand-crafted metal sign at the entrance that reads Lucky Dog Ranch.
Long before the Mitchells lived on their 6-acre parcel, Marlene explained she was walking along the Friant-Kern Canal bank and found a mid-size, tri-colored dog who was badly dehydrated. She took him to their nearby home, named him Lucky, and he was a beloved pet for several years.
Later, when they purchased this property, naming the place was easy.
The couple said they feel fortunate to enjoy this piece of paradise, made even more apparent during the pandemic. “We both agree we could never live in town after living here,” Marty said. “We love the open feeling and just being out in the country.”