Sky Small

Originally published in 

Building a small home doesn’t equate to easy lifting. Before Tom Bayley could call in a crane to lift the materials for his 800-square-foot house to the roof of the building on which it’s perched, he had to tackle a radical retrofit to shore up the structure.

Sky Ranch House

Throughout history, great works of art have required great patrons. In 16th-century Rome, Cardinal Daniele Barbaro left a legacy sponsoring Andrea Palladio, who designed villas throughout northern Italy. A century later in England, Charles II gave the royal seal of approval—and funding—for the construction of Sir Christopher Wren’s concepts, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral. More recently, in the United States, the Kaufmann family famously commissioned works by Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, and today in Washington State, Tom Bayley is doing his part, taking on the role of a modern-day patron, to ensure the continued construction of triumphant buildings.

Bayley comes from a long line of what he refers to as the “sawdust aristocracy.” In 1888, his great-grandfather, C. D. Stimson, moved the family milling company from the Midwest to Seattle. The company acquired property throughout the Pacific Northwest, and established a mill on Salmon Bay. The mill has long since been torn down—though the company is still thriving—and replaced with the Stimson Marina, 12 acres comprising a 250-slip marina and 200,000 square feet of office and warehouse space in four buildings. On the roof of the building nearest the water is Bayley’s chef d’oeuvre: the Sky Ranch, his 800-square-foot home.

Bayley’s previous home was a 3,500-square-foot monster. “You had to traipse around from where you read to where you ate to where you sat,” he says. He was ready to downsize and fulfill his dream of living in a loft, and a friend suggested taking advantage of the views from atop the marina warehouses. As the president of the C. D. Stimson Company, which owns the Stimson Marina, Bayley discovered that he could build a caretaker’s unit on the property, despite its industrial zoning. The wheels started turning, and Bayley soon found himself composing an email to Miller Hull Partnership, a Seattle-based architectural firm that has built modern buildings throughout the city.

The missive, sent in late June 2005, was short and to the point. It read: I am at an early stage of planning an 800-square-foot house—a caretaker’s residence by code, capping the size—that would go on the roof of an industrial building in Ballard. I envision it being built in the parking lot, with special concern being given to lightweight materials, and lifted up with a crane to about 25 feet. Would you be interested in helping me on this and if so, who would you have me contact?

As Miller Hull Partnership only takes on four or five residential projects per year, most inquiries are politely given a pass. Bayley’s email, however, caught partner Scott Wolf’s eye. It hit every note needed to pique his interest: small in square footage; intended to be prefabricated; and located in Ballard, an industrial working-class neighborhood north of downtown Seattle that had recently come into its own, much like the Belltown area had beforehand.  “We were just salivating and wondering if he was serious,” Wolf recalls.

By July, Wolf and his Miller Hull associates were deep in the design process. “With 800 square feet, you have to be pretty economical,” Wolf says. “It wasn’t ‘How are we going to squeeze all this in?’ but ‘Here’s the space; how do you want to use it?’” They organized the home as a simple 20-by-40-foot rectangular box divided into the “nonview” utility side—backing onto the 1.5-acre roof and consisting of an entrance, mechanical and laundry room, bedroom closet, and bathroom—and the “view” living side—overlooking Salmon Bay and made up of the kitchen-dining-living room and bedroom. They wrapped a 500-square-foot partially covered deck around two sides, nearly doubling the usable space.

The layout remained constant throughout the design process; the materials are what required steady scrutiny. Local building code necessitated that the exterior walls be built to a more rigorous fire-safety standard than normal ground-based homes. To achieve this, Wolf added two layers of exterior sheathing over the two-by-six wood framing and kept them at five-eighths-inch thicknesses so the building structure would remain relatively light, as weight was a constant consideration. The corrugated-metal cladding was another lightweight choice and fit well with the industrial setting. Bayley’s original wish for interior concrete floors was quickly scrapped, however, and replaced with bamboo covering.

The other major change was the whereabouts of the construction site: It became apparent that prefabricating the house in the parking lot and lifting it to the roof with a crane—or helicopter, which was also considered—would be far more expensive than building the house in place. But before a single board could be laid directly on the roof, the warehouse required a drastic $200,000 retrofit.

Warehouse roofs are not built to hold more than the weight of the buildings’ mechanical and HVAC units plus any snow that accumulates. Shoring up the structure was a task that would have deterred most from finishing the home, which tiptoed close to failure several times. Wolf’s enthusiasm—and Bayley’s patronage—kept it going. “He was so enamored with the project,” Bayley says. “I couldn’t let him down.” To ensure the roof could bear the load of the Sky Ranch, a crew had to hammer three pin-pile foundations down until they hit hard ground, which ranged from 70 to 100 feet deep.  They installed steel I-beams to shorten the roof spans to better carry the weight and reinforced the roof-wall connections so the building would be seismically sound.

Construction began the day after the retrofit was complete, in the fall of 2006. Bayley sold his 3,500-square-foot house and lived in a boat docked in the marina, which turned out to be a good warm-up for compact living. By late 2007, the Sky Ranch was ready for Bayley to move in. There are several entrances to the warehouse, but none are a proper residential front door. Bayley enters through the door next to the loading docks and ascends via an existing stairwell that was extended to access the roof. The door to the roof requires a key to open it, so when friends stop by he throws one over the edge.

Somewhere between the boardwalk that leads from the door to the roof and the entrance to the vestibule, the Technicolor gets switched on, like Dorothy’s arrival in Oz: The dreary roofscape (and weather) give way to the warm, colorful home. Sweet smells fill the air—thanks to the tenant below, India Tree Gourmet Spices and Specialties. Light filters in through the windows that comprise the south, east, and west facades; they open to expansive views of Salmon Bay, Queen Anne Hill, and, on clear days, the Olympic Mountains.

A 40-foot-long bookcase separates the utility area from the living space. “One strategy we had for compensating for the small size was to make walls that did something else. One was conceived of as a bookcase, another with built-ins,” Wolf says. The wall between the great room and bedroom is occupied by the fireplace, linen closet, and a smaller bookcase.

Being up in the air presents a unique set of challenges. “It’s like living in the Sahara,” Bayley jokes. “It’s totally unprotected.” In the summer, he wears sunglasses in the house, and when he leaves, he always closes the remote-controlled roll-down blinds, as the roof reflects both light and heat into the home. The wind is also amplified: “The clothes dry in ten minutes on the outside line,” he says.

Though the warehouse roof makes the perfect perch, it’s not the solution to Seattle’s housing crisis. “It’s a one-off because the city doesn’t want industry to go away and condos to take its place,” Wolf says. It does, however, open up an interesting look at ways of living: taking advantage of underutilized landscapes, such as rooftops, and redressing the belief that bigger is better. “Little houses and smaller spaces have real charm and appeal,” Wolf says. “They force you to be more conscious about what you have in your life and how you live in your residence.”

Bayley doesn’t think he’ll live in the Sky Ranch forever. “There will come a day when this will all be bulldozed,” he says of the buildings on the company property. He’s contemplated relocating the house to a barge, but then he’d lose the deck. Moving it to the suburbs is out of the question since it would mean staring at the neighbors all day—and having them be able to stare at him at night. “It’s a view house,” he says. “It’d be great on an island. The I-beams are already in place underneath the base of the house to move it to another location.” Perhaps it’s just Bayley’s way of preparing for his next grand, or not so grand, commission. 

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