Case Study: Marrowstone Island Residence by Shipley Architects

Marrowstone Island is a remote finger of land surrounded by the waterways of Puget Sound above Seattle. It sits just south of Port Townsend and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a place that Dan Shipley’s client had passed through during a stint in the Navy. He liked the area, and after moving there full-time, he purchased 5 acres of wooded wetlands at the northwest end of the island. “He liked the property because on a clear day he can see the Olympic Mountains to the west across Port Townsend Bay,” says Dan Shipley, FAIA.

Coincidentally, the owner is from Texas, Dan’s home base, and this is the third house Dan has designed in the area. The connection came circuitously through the client’s Realtor, who recommended Peter Bates and Aaron McGregor of Good Home Construction; they had built Dan’s first house there and made the referral. What is not a coincidence is that Port Townsend is known for its wooden boatbuilding tradition. The Port Townsend Shipwright’s Co-op has been in the news lately because John Steinbeck’s wooden boat, Western Flyer, is being restored there. “Peter and Aaron have boat building experience and are quite a few cuts above,” Dan says. “They are seeing a lot more pixels per square inch than your average carpenter does.”

Because of the wetlands and other restrictions, only a small corner of the heavily wooded lot was buildable—fortunately, the part with the fewest trees. And a 40-foot setback from a 100-foot bluff that drops almost straight down was required to preserve the shoreline. Dan and the builders leaned an extension ladder against a tree and climbed up to survey the view. In addition to the most dramatic vista across the bay, there are lovely secondary views of the trees toward the east. Dan set up the house as a two-part plan with the long side oriented north-south. The north volume contains the garage and guest suite and an upstairs accessory dwelling, while the south volume houses the living and bedroom spaces. Joining the two sections is a 14-foot-wide dogtrot entryway that frames the western panorama. 

Other aspects of the site revealed themselves slowly, and the design evolved alongside these more subtle cues. On an open part of the site, for example, they discovered a beautiful thicket of thorny vegetation. “Pretty soon we understood that if we put the house too close to ground level, you’d have to maintain this natural bluff vegetation, so we raised the house about 5 feet in the back, above the thicket,” Dan says. “It makes the house more vessel like, as though the vegetation is a surf that comes rolling up to the deck.”

With few neighbors or community amenities, there is little ambient light at night and the island feels wild and rugged. To heighten that sense of exploration and discovery, the owner requested a meandering approach to the house. Down a long gravel lane, visitors arrive at an open, amorphous motor court, where wide wooden steps lead up to the dogtrot. “The entrance is not hyped,” Dan says. “The dogtrot is the real entrance; you can go right or left, and the front door is on the left.”

Attuned to Nature

The main entrance on the left opens on a colonnade of hemlock timbers—salvaged, sandblasted, and slightly charred—that separates the entrance and kitchen. Farther along on the dogtrot is a glass door to the open living and dining room. The room’s full-height glass faces west to the water and north onto the dogtrot. “The sun is always low in the sky in the Northwest, so the roof of the dogtrot doesn’t enclose it entirely,” Dan says. “We left a few feet of framing open so there will always be light coming into the north face of the dogtrot, and those exposed roof beams become a sundial that tracks the movement of sun through the day.” In addition, the kitchen, which looks across the living room, has a bay window facing east, connecting it to the approach and the water view. Skylights in the kitchen and living room help to balance the light reflected off the water.

A pantry is sandwiched between the kitchen and a media room at the back of the house, with an adjacent study behind the living room. Oriented to the woods on the southeast corner, the primary bedroom has a cantilevered bump-out to avoid disturbing roots while projecting the room into the trees. These articulated volumes ensure that all the primary spaces are within 12 feet of a natural light source to counter the long periods of cloudy weather and short winter days.

The design also addresses a requirement that prohibits rainwater from draining into the ocean. Each roof form is oriented to move water away from the bluff: The two-story north volume and the south volume’s bedroom bump-out shed water east toward the driveway, while the living room volume slopes down to the south. 

In many ways, the client was ideal, giving the design team creative freedom within his budget. “When the client lived in Texas, he had a house designed in the early 1960s by Eugene George,” Dan says. “There were qualities of that house that he liked and wanted to replicate, such as the blurring of interior and exterior through abundant windows and skylights, but he left it up to me to make the house. He didn’t prescribe too many things other than the basic program.” 

Practical considerations led to the singular use of thermally treated ash for the exterior cladding and decking, which is stable and resists rot. “The unfinished boards look different in different light and moisture conditions,” Dan says. “It was hard to get full-length boards, and I love the quality of the different lengths of siding. To me, it has a great relationship to the vertical trunks of the trees.” Dark window frames keep the focus on the house’s main forms and the void of the dogtrot. On the kitchen’s east wall, a copper-clad bay window counterparts that void, “coming back at you at a smaller scale,” he says. “The copper is variegated and bronzy.” 

House Blend

Inside, a hallway wall is clad in lacquered maple plywood sheets with the grain turned in different directions, its variability also echoing nature’s patterns. Warm, reddish vertical-grain fir floors add a cabinlike touch, while the entry and kitchen floor are protected with travertine tile. In the living room, a dark porcelain fireplace surround helps to hide the TV above it. “I always hate a TV above a fireplace, but he insisted, so we used the dark tile,” Dan says. “The darkness of the TV and gas fireplace make it work together as a unit. The tile has a nice streakiness to it, almost like metal.”

For builder Peter Bates, the challenges were in the details. “We used to say, ‘the next easy thing in this house will be the first easy thing,’” he says. One puzzle was how to adjust the maple plywood joints to create intentional-looking registers when the owner decided to add air-conditioning after the house was framed. The plans also called for a hybrid framing system to support the breezeway roof, deck, and eave overhangs, which meant joining a steel square-tube frame and C-channel to the wood frame. “The owner came up maybe twice during construction, and the last time he saw the house before he moved in was when windows had just gone in,” Peter says. “I was white-knuckled when I knew he was arriving to see the house for the first time after it was finished.”

The Marrowstone Island house provided the architect and builder with the refreshing opportunity to create a full-time residence, rather than the vacation houses for which this area is known. Balancing comfort with a constant awareness of the natural world, it reflects the client’s desire for an intentional and meticulously detailed design that focuses its gaze outdoors.

Marrowstone Island Residence

Nordland, Washington

Project Credits

Architect: Dan Shipley, FAIA, Shipley Architects, Dallas

Builder: Peter Bates and Aaron McGregor, Good Homes Construction, Port Townsend, Washington

Engineer: Brett McElvain, KL&A Engineers, Golden, Colorado

Project size: 4,200 square feet

Site size: 5 acres

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Robert Tsai Photography

Key Products

Ceiling fan: Big Ass Fan

Cladding/Decking: Thermory Ash

Cooktop/Vent Hood: Wolf

Door hardware: Omnia

Engineered lumber: Boise Cascade

Faucets: Dornbracht, Hansgrohe

Fireplace: Ortal

Fireplace surround: Interceramic tile

Housewrap: Tyvek

HVAC systems: Daikin VRV

Lighting: B-K Lighting

Refrigerator: Sub-Zero

Roofing: Carlisle TPO

Sinks: Kohler

Skylights: VELUX

Windows and window wall systems: Marvin

Ventilation: Panasonic