Custom Home 3,000 to 5,000 Square Feet / Grand Award
Viewed from the waters of Washington's Chuckanut Bay some 75 feet below, this new house nestles deeply into its steep, wooded site. Seen at closer range, the relationship of site and architecture become even more intimately entwined. The entry courtyard, a narrow drive wedged between the building and the hillside, leads to a sandstone-faced garage that seems to grow out of the rocky slope. The garage mass forms the wide end of a stone-clad wedge that extends through the timber-framed house, separating public spaces from private. The stone walls, with their cast concrete lintels, provide an earthy contrast to the exposed wood structure and anchor the building on the site (literally as well as figuratively; the garage's cast concrete shell retains the hillside above). Project architect Chris Bigos had to sell the idea to his clients, who had envisioned a pure post-and-beam structure. “That was kind of a challenge to them,” he says. But the combination of timber and stone flatters both modes of construction and gives the architect another tool with which to shape his clients' experience of the house. Upon entering the house, Bigos says, “Your eye kind of follows that stone wall, to the water, to Bellingham Bay, to the San Juan Islands, and right out to the horizon.”
Because one approaches the house from above, Bigos made the roof another major design element. Its steep, telescoping gables echo the distant silhouette of the San Juans. Every seventh course of red cedar shingles is doubled, subtly breaking up the roof planes. On a site with virtually no level ground, Bigos carved out a bit of usable real estate by designing the flat garage roof as an elevated rock garden. Fixed skylights provide uphill views to balance the watery vistas in the opposite direction. But this site is a natural amphitheater, and there is no doubting the direction to the stage. Bigos made the bay-side walls a virtual open timber frame, with fixed glass spanning from post to post. Water views, veined with the sinuous orange trunks of the native madrone trees, wrap halfway around the house. Three decks—along with the rooftop rock garden—each offer a subtly different outdoor experience.
And the house is more than just a well-positioned viewing platform. While it “works wonderfully with the site,” our judges noted, it is also “a livable, comfortable space.” The fir timber frame balances openness with a sturdy and secure sense of enclosure. Cherry cabinetry and floors at the ground level give way to Douglas fir finishes at the second floor, which includes guest spaces and an informal weaving studio. Along with the stone walls, the madrone tree provides another site-related motif. A weathered madrone log found on the site became the living room fireplace mantel. The entry door was fashioned of madrone wood, its leaded glass sidelight and door lights depicting the twisting form of the same tree.
But first impressions count, in design competitions as well as in houses, and the judges might not have lingered long enough to take in such details if their first take on this house were not so positive. First and last, they said, they liked it “because of the way it grew out of the hill.”