The great ones make it look easy. Houses, that is. When a custom home is fully resolved—when the design is inspired, the craftsmanship spot-on, and owner, architect, and builder fully in sync—the result betrays nothing of the effort expended in its creation. Rather than an accumulation of bits and pieces, the building achieves a state of unity and inevitability approaching that of music. And we don't quibble with Mozart or Muddy Waters; we sit back and enjoy the performance. So it is with this house, which weaves the familiar notes of wood, stone, glass, and steel into something almost alive. But just because it looks easy doesn't mean it was. In fact, there was a point in its history when this house seemed unlikely to get further than plans on paper.
Builder Mark Schilperoort first laid eyes on those plans in 2002. “We were kind of excited about it,” says Schilperoort, who had recently launched a new company to produce just this type of work (see “The Builder: On Key,” page 51). After he won the job, though, the project hit a snag. The new building would replace an existing house on a suburban lot outside Seattle, but a code official declared its location too close to the existing well. “The house pretty much has to sit where it is,” Schilperoort explains, and the closest alternative location for the well was on a neighbor's property. “It seemed like an impasse,” he says, “and the project sort of went away.” The owner persisted, however, pursuing and eventually buying a lot across the street on which to dig a new well.
That left Schilperoort only the matter of producing the most complex and challenging house of his career. “We'd seen those plans a couple of years before, so we'd had our heads into them already,” he says. “But, boy, it was just designed to the gills.” The credit for that goes to architect Nils Finne, who is no stranger to architecture of the nth degree. Before opening his own firm, Finne was project architect for Richard Meier's $1.2 billion Getty Center in Los Angeles, one of the largest art museums in the world. Finne and Schilperoort have worked together on a number of projects, but as they tour this house a year after its completion, it becomes clear that they consider it the high mark of their collaboration.
The house consists of two distinct pavilions joined by a glass-walled entry link. To the north of the entry stretches a long, low-roofed wing that contains the garage and the house's private spaces. To the south, almost a separate building, stands a kitchen/great room. It is the latter, the eccentric hip roof of which is surmounted by an immense, glazed monitor, that announces itself and draws one inside with the promise of something very special.
The interior delivers on that promise. Ostensibly square, the room's plan actually describes a subtle trapezoid that splays outward to the south, creating a false perspective that emphasizes the room's generous size. Low cabinets subtly delineate cooking, dining, seating, and office spaces. The kitchen area, with its understated slate countertops and un-kitchen-like cherry casework, blends seamlessly with the room's sit-down zones. And that bane of formal spaces, the television, is cleverly hidden. At Seahawks game time, a large flat-screen unit rises at the push of a button from the living room cabinet; another button causes it to pivot for viewing from any part of the room.
The great room's structural system consists of an exposed welded steel frame roofed over with 4x10 rafters, smaller purlins, and a tongue-and-groove deck, all of Douglas fir (see “Details: Rhythm Section,” page 49). Clear fir also lines the webs of the wishboned I-beam columns that support the roof, making them seem improbably delicate. “People say, ‘Are those supporting?'” Finne says. “Yeah, about 40 tons!” The steel frame, blackened to contrast with the wood, allows for exterior walls that are predominantly glass. The star of the show is the monitor overhead, which raises the roof both literally and figuratively. Like the pavilion itself, the monitor is trapezoidal in plan, but it splays toward the north rather than the south. Its broken-back shed roof also rises toward the north, washing the room with diffuse, indirect light. During Seattle's long rainy season, quality of light equals quality of life. In this house, the owner reports, “You don't get seasonal affective disorder. Winters are great.”
To fine tune the room's design, Finne says, “We made a model at pretty large scale to see how all that would look.” Due to the complex geometry involved, not to mention the many custom fabrications and furnishings throughout the house, “We spent a huge amount of time in shop drawings.” Field conditions tend to have a mind of their own, however, and the company that built the windows wasn't about to trust drawings for custom units with no right angles in them. “The frames were dry fit up there twice before they glazed them,” Finne says. “They had the president of the company out here dry fitting those.”
Less dramatic at first glance, the bedroom wing also holds its share of surprises, the greatest of which, again, lies overhead. What appears from ground level outside the house as a low-pitched hip roof is in fact a different animal entirely. The ridge beam runs diagonally, from one building corner to its opposite, rising along its 100-foot length from the garage to the master bedroom. One plane of the roof pitches from the ridge toward the south, the other toward the east, making the ridge, arguably, a hip. The scheme has the effect of peeling the bedroom wing open along its length, ramping up the drama with each successive room, from a utilitarian garage to a child's bedroom to the master bedroom, whose symmetrical plan and skewing sections maintain a beautifully balanced tension. Nearly as open to the outdoors as the great room, the bedroom affords the option of drawing a set of hidden shades or relying for privacy on the dense, green wall of firs that rings the property.
If architecture is, as Goethe said, “frozen music,” then this house is a piece in two movements: the great room, which plays like a continuous overture, and the bedroom wing, which begins quietly and builds to a subtle crescendo. Finne's plans were the score for this performance, but Schilperoort's role was equally, shall we say, instrumental. “We had to do physical mock-ups,” the builder says. “How do you want to make this transition? How do you want to accomplish this? There was a lot of physical figuring.” As with any performance, he admits, “There was a fear factor.” But the outcome is nothing short of a virtuoso turn.
Builder: Schilperoort & Brooks General Contractors, Mountlake Terrace, Wash.
Architect: Finne Architects, Seattle
Living space: 4,225 square feet
Site: 1.85 acres
Construction cost: Withheld
Photographer: Benjamin Benschneider (except where noted) Resources: Bathroom plumbing fittings/fixtures: California Faucets, Duravit, Elkay, Hansgrohe, Kohler, Toto, Waterworks; Cabinets: Pete's Cabinets; Ceramic tile: Ann Sacks and Oceanside; Dishwasher: Miele; Garage door: Holmes Garage Doors; Hardware: FSB; Kitchen plumbing fixtures: Elkay, Hansgrohe; Lighting: Bruck; Linoleum flooring: Forbo; Oven: Thermador; Paint/stain: Benjamin Moore, Cabot's, Devine, Livos; Range: Viking.
Details: Rhythm Section
A composite system of wood and steel, this house's structural frame is an eye-opener, in more ways than one. “All of our houses are in that never-been-done-before category,” says architect Nils Finne, “but the framing [on this one] made everyone kind of break out into a cold sweat.” The steel fabricator's powerful computer imaging program allowed the architects to view the proposed frame in three dimensions and rotated to any angle, which speeded the design. But when the steel members arrived, builder Mark Schilperoort looked at the compound miters of their precut ends and thought, “If this goes together it will be a miracle.”
The steel crew assembled the puzzle without a hitch, though, and Schilperoort's carpenters went to work on the wood framing. Because every structural member is exposed, he says, “You almost have to frame the house the way you'd build a cabinet. You're setting 400-pound pieces of wood that don't get covered.” Builder, architect, and owner spent a long evening under the open frame, setting the precise location of every ceiling light fixture. “There was a lot of pre-planning before we could cover that roof,” Schilperoort says, “because all of the electrical is buried up there. You'd have to pull the whole roof off to monkey with that.” Schilperoort showed equal foresight in hiding the supply lines for the sprinkler heads, in places using the box-section steel frame as a plumbing chase.
The Builder: On Key
When Mark Schilperoort left a successful custom building partnership to start a new company, the timing seemed less than fortuitous. Schilperoort & Brooks General Contractors opened for business too late to cash in on Seattle's dot-com heyday and just in time for the shock of 9/11. Despite some initial jitters, though, the company has exceeded the expectations of both its clients and its owners. Much of the credit goes to Schilperoort, who left his previous position because the company had grown too large for the hands-on approach he prefers. At between 20 and 30 employees, the new company's size allows him to engage fully in the design-intensive projects that are its specialty.
Schilperoort gives equal credit to his partner, Mike Brooks, whose accounting background is a perfect counterbalance to Schilperoort's construction site expertise. “I do budgets pretty well,” Schilperoort says, “but it's not the part of the business I thrive on.” And the team has produced. “We hoped to have $250,000 in cash flow in three years. That was one of our goals, because we didn't want to have to borrow. It actually took about four years to get there.” The company's volume has tracked steadily upward, from $1.2 million in its first year to $9 million in its seventh. “We want to do work that we enjoy,” Schilperoort says, “and survive.” Make that a check, in both columns.