The client, Frank Firmani, is a builder who shares Cobb's penchant for straightforward solutions and honest, hard-working materials. “Eric understood the vertical axis really well,” he says. “Some architects' work has buried complexity—it looks simple but costs a fortune to build. I was impressed with Eric's ability to design with a certain cleanness of logic.”eliminating excess
Although this house was not inexpensive to build, Cobb is ever mindful of the responsibility to focus the investment where it counts. His first solo commission—a retirement house for his Depression-era parents—was a lasting lesson in architecture's relationship to necessity. Cobb was in New York City working for Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects in 1994 when he began designing his folks' house in Seattle. And he was shocked when the cost estimate came in 100 percent over budget. “My father was close to retirement age, so there was no new financing coming in,” Cobb says. “Basically I needed to move there and build it myself.”
That is, in fact, how he got back to Seattle and set up a practice. But, meanwhile, by hiring a construction manager to help round up inexpensive subcontractors and spending every day on site, he was able to turn the budget constraints into an exercise in originality. That experience made crystal clear the folly of obsessing over details without a reality check on how much they cost. “When you're forced to decide between perfection but building only half a house, and relaxing some performance expectation—go with a B- sub and work it to see if you can pull it off—you take a hard look at economy at a very micro level,” he says. Yet that directness is part of his DNA, and as the practice has grown along with the amount of money clients bring to the table, the continuing challenge is to maintain simplicity and economy.
That's why Cobb views vacation homes as a creative luxury. They typically don't have huge budgets, so they can be cleverly compact. What's more, their difficult sites make the case for investment in the structure, and clients are more willing to try unusual solutions. Second homes raise other issues, too, like how to avoid the obvious response to the big view. “We try to convince clients that the views of a project are not just the views out over its landscape,” Cobb says. “The house can be viewed from outside—back into, through, over, and under it.” For example, at a Lopez Island cabin on Puget Sound, the house rotates south to the subtler view—a pristine wetland where all the grasses and reeds are exactly the same height. The water is visible to the left, and galvanized steel pipe columns loft the house above the floodplain. That move also made room for water-catchment basins—and light and transparency—under the house.