Project DescriptionOn Site
A Custom Home On A Secluded Site Brings Its Own Challenges—and Rewards.
To get to Guemes Island in Washington State's remote and rocky San Juan Islands, you need to have a little patience. From Seattle it's an 80-mile trip north to Anacortes, Wash., where the Guemes Island Ferry docks. You drive your car or truck right onto the boat and spend a leisurely five minutes crossing the Guemes Channel. When the ferry stops in front of Anderson's General Store and the low drone of its motor shuts off, you know you've finally arrived.
Builder Shane Bennett and architect Bernie Baker have made the trip many times. The pair, both based in the Seattle area, spent more than three years collaborating on a 9,500-square-foot vacation house on the island's north side. Bennett even stayed at a nearby bed-and-breakfast during the week so he could manage construction more easily—it didn't make sense for him to spend four to five hours commuting every day. And because most of his subcontractors hailed from the mainland, scheduling their daily arrival and departure times became a crucial issue. The ferry leaves for Guemes every half hour or hour, depending on the time of day, with a two-hour break for lunch. The last trip back to Anacortes, meanwhile, leaves at 6 p.m. during the week. Bennett had to make sure everyone made the boat coming (lest his carefully planned timetable go awry) and going (to avoid disgruntled subs spending an unexpected night on the island). Since the home's building materials came from off-island as well, planning their delivery times further complicated matters. “It was all about scheduling,” he says calmly. “Getting things here on time is the key to running a job efficiently.”
The island may lie off the beaten path, but the wooded, waterfront site was even more so initially. At the time the clients bought it, the 20-acre property contained no power lines, water pipes, or access road. Baker worked with landscape architect Linda Attaway to design a meandering driveway from the main road to the house, along with two rainwater storage ponds. Rain runoff from the roof is filtered and pumped uphill to the ponds, then used for irrigation. Baker and Bennett also connected an existing well to the house, providing the clients with a potable water supply. And they worked with a civil engineer to create an underground link to the island's electrical and sewer systems.
In addition to making their raw property buildable and habitable, the clients had one main design request. The Seattle couple intended to use the house on weekends and holidays, sometimes for themselves and their young children and sometimes as a gathering place for their extended family. They asked for a house that could accommodate both situations comfortably. Baker's floor plan centers on a kitchen, sitting room, and casual dining room and an upstairs master suite, office, and tower library. A second-floor bridge joins the master bedroom to three kids' bedrooms, and with that the family has all the space they need for a weekend together. When they're entertaining, they and their guests can spread out into another, more formal dining space, a generously sized living room with a massive stone fireplace, and a pair of guest suites separated by a breezeway from the main house.
Baker didn't stop there. He liked the idea of a house that progressively revealed itself, rather than flaunting all its features at once. With that in mind, he designed a cabana wing shielding the pool and tennis courts from view of the driveway and the rest of the house. In the same way, the central portion of the building blocks prime sightlines from the front courtyard to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Arched portals cut into the building hint at what lies beyond it, but until you step through them you don't get the full effect of the site's privacy and proximity to the water. Nor can you see the entire house from any point on the property, so it never feels too big when the clients are there alone. Since Baker wanted to bring as much natural light inside as possible, he stretched the house out long and thin—in most places, it's just one room deep. Thanks to his careful plotting, the home projects a whimsical quality, as if you never know what's going to be around each corner. “From the office you can see across to the kids' playroom,” he says. “It's like the house is looking at you.”
Over 900 yards of concrete went into the project, including the foundation, footings, and 8- to 12-foot-high retaining wall. Bennett poured some of it in large, 80- to 90-yard increments, which posed a tricky problem. Since the pours had to be continuous, and since each ferry could only hold one or two concrete trucks, he needed to keep a constant stream of trucks coming onto the island. The two-hour midday ferry break would throw off the entire process. He negotiated with the ferry operators to privately charter the boat during the lunch break. That way it could keep running back and forth all day, and the pours went off without a hitch.
From its immovable concrete base to its steel moment framing to its heavy stone chimneys, the house feels as solid and strong as the glaciers that scraped out its site thousands of years ago. You can easily imagine it standing there for another millennium.