Kai and Ingrid, a young couple with two boys, one-year old Bei and 3-year old Tai, called us in December of 2013. They had been renting a house in Bellevue and were searching for land in Medina, Washington (east of Seattle) near good schools for their sons. Land and houses that could support their family were selling very quickly; we looked at two older homes for Kai and Ingrid, comparing location, land, zoning, and environment.
Together we walked a 1961 mid-century modern house sited on 21,625 square feet of land that sloped significantly in tiers from the adjacent drive to a wooded area below.
The existing older house was initially explored as a renovation then rejected because of the house’s age, datedness, energy inefficiency, overall depth (it was too shallow), the compressed, awkward kitchen, and a lack of a sense of openness of interior space; all issues that became important considerations in the new design. We asked Kai and Ingrid for a program of space as they quickly made the decision to purchase the house. In a nod to the history of the place we saved a portion of the existing home’s eastern foundations and incorporated these concrete walls into a sunken entry court, a quiet northwest garden imparting depth and drama to an entry bridge.
The Medina land use codes allowed a house of only 25 feet yet the half acre of land and the generous hillside and wood facing west, the back yard of the house, lent the prospect of height and openness to the two-story design Rhodes Architecture + Light began planning in 2014. We worked closely with our clients to create a light-filled “tree house” on Kai’s orders on two levels entering from an existing drive, gardens, and walks privately nestled below the accessing street.
The Seattle Times , June 17, 2016: “Shih says they envisioned something treehouse-y, filled with “places to play in and have fun.” That starts (for all ages) even before you get to the front door, on a cool “flying” entry bridge (over a sunken garden) that continues into an open, airy two-level atrium. (And, because even the most precisely struck soccer ball might sometime, somehow, land inside there, one lower-level section of its glass opens for easy retrieval.)
This was to be, from the beginning, a three-generation home. The design had to create equal and separate family spaces for six family members (Kai and Ingrid, Tai and Bei and a future sister, and Ingrid’s mother). Kai and Ingrid wanted equal, egalitarian spaces to encourage peaceful cohabitation.
The Seattle Times , June 17, 2016: Every child, even the bouncy baby girl, has a full suite with his or her own bathroom. “Almost exactly the same size, so they won’t fight,” Shih says, but shhh: One has a slightly bigger tub, and another a bigger closet. (We are not saying whose.)
We also wanted to incorporate extensive landscape and to connect the house to gardens and to reach out to and firmly embrace the land to the west with it’s tiered hillside and more dense wooded area for Kai and Ingrid’s boys to explore.
The use of the land, allowing the house to open to the recessed entry garden, the lower level back hillside, to broad decks and outdoor spaces overlooking planned paths and gardens “behind” the house, was critical to creating expansive openness, transparency, even private naturally lit spaces within the house. The tiered nature of the site was expressed and further accentuated by the entry path, the flying entry bridge, and a vertical central atrium of light.
The Seattle Times , June 17, 2016: The whole home is highly, deliberately integrated with nature, with tons of windows, wood, natural materials and colors, and light. Nearly every room (including the kids’) has a door to an outside deck, and in the living area, an accordion glass wall opens to a huge deck that interconnects with the living spaces. “We really wanted the kids looking outside instead of at screens,” Shih says. “We want them interested in nature, and there’s lots to look at outside: deer, birds, cats, rabbits. We want to provide a beautiful experience.”
The program of spaces that we worked with Kai and Ingrid to understand immediately suggested plans that clustered the kids’ rooms (three of them including a bedroom for their third planned child) on the lower northwest to access the most private land. Separate and equal “master suites” at the south lower and north upper floors were planned for Kai and Ingrid and for Ingrid’s mother; these master suites could be used interchangeably, investing the house with future flexibility. The separation of these three bedroom zones and the centered entry bridge suggested the day-lighted glass core to the house and this sky-lit atrium became the central space, connecting and separating bedrooms, living-dining-kitchen wings, and utilitarian storage and garage spaces and bringing light and openness to all as well as into the interior of the house.
Circulation within and across this central atrium was expressed by spanning steel bridges while vertical wood “screen walls” were used to create permeable walls and retain openness while screening family spaces and more public spaces. The entry-atrium circulation path was developed as a glass axis, a crystal envelope allowing views in, out and through the central space and further connecting the interior with the surrounding land and gardens. The atrium at the core also connects the two vertical levels, creating views across the house, connecting family at various places within the house, and bringing in the landscape and the gardens.
The form of the house is driven by the roofs; the “butterfly” or shed roof forms open even as they protect. The enveloping quilt of opaque and open walls and glass and the house plan itself were deliberately developed to allow each space variability in three characteristics relating to the scale of the space: the ceiling height, the degree of natural light, and the degree of openness. More intimate spaces (dining, for example) are placed under lower portions of roofs, are more central and are less exposed to exterior light, while higher roofs lend openness, connectedness, volume, and cascading light to larger, more public, spaces. The gradually sloping shed roofs gain height as they reach exterior walls, views, and daylight, allowing more light to flow inside over wood-paneled ceilings. Warm ceiling materials continue in exterior roof soffits, enticing the eye upward and out to bright sky views. The open walls, wood vertical lattice screens, and ceiling plane transitions were created to delineate horizontal spaces while retaining a flow of space and connectivity from space to space and to the more “public” core of the house.
Materials inside and outside the house were selected for texture, for low maintenance, to accent the parts of the house, and to reduce the apparent scale of the house as a whole. The envelope of the house utilizes a rain screen siding system to allow air to circulate behind the siding. The exterior siding and roof soffits feature Parklex wood panels that lend a sheltering warmth to the house, inside and out, and need no maintenance. Factory-finished powder-coated metal siding adds texture to the envelope. Windows and doors are high efficiency aluminum cladding outside while expressing wood frames inside the house. A variety of texture, color, and material was composed to create a logical but playful differentiation of the parts of the house.
The overall landscape was treated carefully and collaboratively with Erin Lau, Landscape Architect, during the design process to create a new entry, a landscape wall at the adjacent avenue, to insert a much larger drive and parking area and to orchestrate a deliberate arrival progression across entry bridge and sunken garden into the house. The rear yard, which was categorized as steep slope by the City of Medina, was folded and contoured to create, at the top of the landscape, accessible herb and vegetable gardens, tiered middle level paths for exploration, and a lower zone of bermed natural terrain and wood which was left to grow more naturally.
Seattle Times, June 17, 2016: Outdoors, paths purposely wind around trees, and a big flat area accommodates all-out running. “We can just throw them outside during spring and summer,” Shih says. (Figuratively.)
For the kids, for now, the family home kind of IS a fun-filled treehouse, where even a strikingly designed shower delivers pure, clean giddiness. For the parents, of course, “for now” means the future is never too far off, and kids will grow, quickly, and things will change.