Looking back

One thing about running a busy design studio is that we don’t spend a lot of time looking back.  Most of the time we’re focused on the work in front of us and the commitments we’ve made to our clients. But every so often something comes up that makes us look back, and that’s what happened when we redid the website.

The first thing we noticed going over 25 years of projects is how few of them have made it to the web.  Most of the time it’s because our clients have wanted their houses to stay private and we understand that.  But sometimes it’s just because we’ve never had time to put them up on the website.  We’ve decided to do something about that.  From time to time we’re going to bring a project out of the vault and put it in our blog so people can see where we’ve been and maybe get a better sense of how we work.  Here’s the first.


 Our clients had moved from South Africa some years before and were still trying to put down roots.  The children were grown and scattered around the world running various parts of the family business and the old family home had long been sold.  What they needed was a place for everyone to come home to.  They’d bought a waterfront property on a remote island with no ferry service, no power, no water, no sewer. What they wanted was a summer house with all the modern conveniences; something like our “Island House” which they’d seen in a magazine and which was completely off the grid.

The property was breathtaking but the water view was largely hidden by a heavy stand of trees. To make things more difficult, the clients requested that we cut down as few trees as possible and stay back from the water so the house would be invisible but at the same time take full advantage of the sweeping views and be fully solar powered and self-sufficient. No problem.

We had long been fascinated with coastal native architecture which suited this kind of remote site better than the more conventional cottage form. We started with a traditional heavy timber “big house” frame — magnificent in its ancient simplicity — and enclosed it with random width planks of glass instead of the traditional cedar so the whole house opened up to the forest and the full power of the frame can be felt in an abstracted, modern way.

Not many people have seen timbers of the size we used — 10″ x 42″ for the main beams and posts — and the reason is simple:  for 150 years we’ve logged the mighty northwest forests and turned most of it into 2 x 4s and plywood.  Almost nothing has been done that speaks to the size of the trees, and that’s why even local people visiting the house are spellbound when they see the heavy timber frame.

Years after the house was finished the clients came back to us to say that it had become more than their summer home; it had become the centre of the family universe.  We were glad to hear that.