For those who understand construction, there is a bittersweet quality to falling in love with a site. They know building in a pristine location risks diminishing the very qualities they treasure. The owners of Suncrest, a retired architect and a painter, knew the stakes in building on this island shorefront. But their commitment to tread lightly—and an architect and builder who shared that commitment—yielded a house that amplifies the experience that first drew them to this spot.
And what a spot. “It’s a microcosm of all that the islands have to offer,” says architect Joe Herrin. “It’s got the bogs, the grassy balds”—areas of soil too shallow to support trees—“the fir-and-madrone forest, the ravens, eagles, and vultures.” And the views, which stretch westward to Vancouver Island.
Because the natural clearing narrows toward the water, Herrin’s one-room-deep plan bends in a shallow arc that orients each part of the house toward a different prospect. “It’s not a one-liner,” he says. “It keeps changing as you walk through it.” The plan wraps around a broad rock outcropping, opening between the main house and the guest suite into a covered courtyard that preserves a cluster of mature madrone trees. The building’s shed-roof section echoes the slope of the land, rising from a wall of west-facing glass to a band of clerestory windows that take in the tree canopy to the east.
The job of executing the plan went to Peter Kilpatrick, a custom builder based on neighboring San Juan Island. In fragile island environments, he says, “we plan and stage very carefully to have minimal impact on the site.” Most important, “we keep the big machinery—the bulldozer and backhoe—within the house footprint.” As proof of his methods, he points to a patch of native grasses that segues seamlessly into the outcropping. “That’s a flat roof over the garage,” he says. Just beyond, “you step off the deck right onto mossy rock, which we had fenced off for the entire project as a no-go zone.”
Native plants—in the form of Douglas fir and madrone lumber—also grace the building itself. The challenge here, Kilpatrick says, was managing “the relationship between materials, how they meet, the reveals, and the really clean, tight lines between the concrete, wood, and steel.” His cabinet shop produced all the millwork, including closets and built-in furnishings. “The cabinetry drove a lot of the finish detailing in the house,” he says. “That’s a subtlety that really pulls things together.” Subtle relationships among disparate elements—as disparate as site and structure—characterize the entire project. “It almost looks like the house was dropped in by helicopter,” Kilpatrick says, “and that was our goal.”