Whatever the topography or scale, a good house celebrates the experience of space inside and out, and these two buildings do that extraordinarily well. On a remote island in Puget Sound, the getaways are as rugged as their setting, but cocoon-like as well. The serene main house and guesthouse demonstrate the restorative potential of architecture by inviting the owner to connect with herself and with nature.
That was important, because she is active in Seattle’s civic culture and depends on this place to decompress. She had been coming to an existing house on this spot for many years and wanted a house that better suited her lifestyle. It was also an opportunity to build a smaller retreat for her grown daughter on the adjacent lot, or “building circle.” In this community, land is shared in common and each resident owns a building circle where a house can be built, says Steve Hoedemaker, AIA, whose firm, Hoedemaker Pfeiffer, was hired to design the project.
The compact 2,500-square-foot main house and 1,975-square-foot guesthouse have shed roofs, Douglas fir windows and doors, hemlock ceilings, and oak floors. Canted slightly toward each other on the steep, rocky site, they both use simple, stacked-stone volumes as an organizing principle. While this concept acknowledges the site’s geology, it was also an emotional touchstone. “The client’s family had a property in Appalachia with an old stone cottage that had a lot of sentimental meaning for them,” says Steve. “It was lost to fire and the property was given to the state to become a park. The property has lived in their memory and imagination, and they wanted to reach back and touch an aspect of what it meant to them.”
Sitting high above the water, the main house is a glass-and-wood structure resting on a plinth of Whistler basalt stone quarried in Canada. “The idea was to create a stone platform on which the house could rest, and then a stone wall to provide privacy from a small road,” Steve says. “On top of the platform is a light wood building that could perch there with much less need for both structure and privacy.”
On the north entry façade, a bar-shaped stone volume contains the master bath, powder room, and mudroom/laundry, its shed roof tilted down against the weather and the road. An east-west hallway axis joins it to the taller and lighter structure behind it housing a kitchen/dining/living room and master bedroom that flow out to a deck overlooking Puget Sound. Stacked stone reappears in this volume as a pair of central fireplaces. They separate the public and private spaces and flank a wide stairway to the lower level, which holds two bedrooms, a bath, and a kayak garage.
“The house sits on the westernmost portion of the island with beautiful sunlight and great views across the water and the islands,” Steve says. Sheltered and controlled, the main living space gets abundant light through a south wall of glass facing the water. This volume also tips up to the north, but its higher roofline allows for a band of operable clerestory windows that backfill the space with continuous northern light and release warm air on the leeward side. Its lower pitch toward the water protects the inside from glare.
One thing the client liked about the old house was that there was a sunny place to sit comfortably outdoors in cool weather, sheltered from the wind, Steve says. Hoedemaker Pfeiffer’s design recreated that version through the roof overhang and the two stone fireplace volumes that puncture the back wall, creating a protected seating nook on the deck. “The design allows them to occupy the main floor outside the building, and that protected space captures warmth from sunlight even when the temperature isn’t quite accommodating,” says project architect Todd Beyerlein.
Indeed, the design sets up a nuanced relationship between house, land, and view. “When you enter the house, there’s a moment where you’re able to see distant views, and you can see that there’s an exterior plinth you can inhabit; it inspires you to move around the building to get there,” says Todd. Adds Steve: “You can see the stone level that the whole first floor sits on and can read the ground dropping away. It’s an introduction to the concept, but you have to go looking for it.”
The solid, enduring interior materials are a further manifestation of the house as a tool for exploring nature. The feel of both cottages came from a basket of objects the client had collected from the site, such as bark, feathers, and rocks. In addition to the stone, honey-colored cedar siding wraps inside to cover the walls. Charcoal-colored basaltina, an Italian stone, adds a calming complement in the kitchen and baths.
A variation on this theme, the guesthouse was conceived as a stone tower with three protrusions. Closer to the water than the main house, “the site is a great deal steeper,” Todd says, “and was encumbered by a community association rule that limited its height to preserve the views of other residents. It also had a smaller building circle than the main house, which to some extent dictated the design. We wanted to build on a small footprint to limit excavation, yet we wanted more square footage, so we came up with what amounted to a stone tower with a program that extends outward.”
Visitors enter through a ground-to-roof glazed opening on the north side. To the left is a bumped-out wall of louvered casement windows that light the switchback staircase leading to the lower-level bedrooms and bath. Ahead on the main floor are the great room’s kitchen, island, and living room—and beyond, a south deck that cantilevers far above grade. The third protrusion is a glass-enclosed, 12-foot-by-15-foot dining room, held dramatically aloft on two 36-foot steel beams that anchor 24 feet into the building structure.
“It’s great to be up there among the trees, but we had to work hard to keep them there,” Steve says. Footings for a retaining wall under the dining room were tapered to steer clear of the roots of an important tree.
These companion buildings frame the indoor-outdoor conversation in different ways. “In the main house it’s about perching on a piece of earth and allowing the architecture to become light and ephemeral,” Todd says. “In the guesthouse, it’s about what it means to be inside, yet step outside of the architecture and still be indoors. We liked the idea of setting up rules and then finding very specific reasons to violate them.” Adds Steve, “it was almost like the square was too strong and simple until we came up with the exception.”
It took almost two years to build the houses, working on an isolated island without ferry service. With headquarters in Seattle and operations all over the U.S., Schuchart Dow (now Dowbuilt) knew how to organize around difficult terrain and time the arrival of concrete trucks with the tides. Most of the workers commuted by private boat daily, and the materials were barged in and staged at a house rented for the duration. “We would take all of our materials to that location first, prep them, and take them out to the job as needed,” says project manager Josh Williamson. “The 400,000 pounds of basalt stone came as blocks and every stone needed to be cut to a gauged size we could work with. But once we fell into a system, it became routine.”
The steep slope was daunting too, and not just for the construction crew. “We had to put up a perimeter safety fence around the whole site so that people and tools and materials didn’t fall into the water,” Steve says. Or sheep, it turns out. The island is home to a native population of free-ranging sheep brought here more than 100 years ago. During construction, a newborn fell down the hill and would have hit the water had it not been for the fence. “Our laborer who was living on the island took it home and nursed it back to health,” Josh says.
The project was a collective effort of more than 100 workers, he adds. The result is two well-crafted compositions that achieve the best of retreat architecture by letting nature shape and define it.
Plans and Drawings
Hillside Sanctuary and Hillside Retreat
San Juan Islands, Washington
ARCHITECT: Steve Hoedemaker, AIA, principal in charge; Todd Beyerlein, project architect, Hoedemaker Pfeiffer, Seattle
BUILDER: Josh Williamson, project manager, Schuchart/Dow (now Dowbuilt), Seattle
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Randy Allworth, Allworth Design, Seattle
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Malsam Tsang, Seattle
CIVIL ENGINEER: LPD Engineering, Seattle
GEOTECHNICAL ENGINEER: Nelson Geotechnical Associates, Woodinville, Washington
ARBORIST: Island Tree Doctor, Eastsound, Washington
PROJECT SIZE: 2,500 square feet (main house), 1,975 square feet (guesthouse)
SITE SIZE: .07 acres each
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHER: Kevin Scott
DOOR HARDWARE: Baldwin
ENTRY DOORS: Northstar Woodworks
EXTERIOR LIGHTING: B-K Lighting, Lucifer Lighting
INTERIOR LIGHTING: Philips Lightolier, Hafele, Tech Lighting, Casella, Currey & Company, Modern Fan Company
SINKS: Blanco, Duravit, PHYLRICH
THERMAL AND MOISTURE BARRIER: PROSOCO
WINDOWS: Woodcraft Windows