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Building the Maxon House: Week 2

In our latest Backstory series, Seattleite Lou Maxon recounts the thrills and trials of ditching the suburbs, buying property, and designing and building a modern house with Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects. Week Two: The story continues...

 

I had serious doubts. More than twenty-one forested acres? I’m picturing a super-small rural town, a tractor, a rifle, a hunting dog, a septic system, a pickup truck. Maybe a well? The liquor store in town might also be the hardware store. They took turns being mayor.

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Existing logging road. Note overgrown forest and lack of light.

Strolling down the logging road about five hundred feet from the farmer’s gate at the entrance, we neared the undeveloped site. We poked our heads around some mangled tree branches and suddenly glimpsed a view to farmland, a winding river and a thriving valley. We were sold. It was, if possible, the polar opposite of where we were now. Open spaces, real nature, no clear cuts, real “green-belts.”

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Collage of site photos overlaid on top of previous owner's site plan. Site was unoccupied when purchased.

We called a real-estate agent. He passed us on to a land expert. Who passed us on to another land expert. I should have known: the complications of finding someone to show us the land was a sign of what lay ahead.

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Quick note from our land broker, who helped us throughout the entire process of reviewing the site, visiting the county, and brokering the land deal.
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Part of the early process of site selection is reviewing all the existing materials from the seller and the county to research out any potential issues that may prohibit development. This is a faxed scan of the parcel we were exploring.

We made an offer. Then a counter-offer. About two months later, we had two mortgages, 21 acres, a house to sell, a house to build—and no clue how either was going to happen any time soon.

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A quick sketch of our entire site. The corner triangle piece indicates the entry portion of the site where we access the gate and logging road.
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Neither of us have any training as architects or draftspeople. Learning to read and understand site diagrams and drawings became a necessary skill, since we spent a considerable amount of time researching options on house location, site setbacks, and forest practices along the way.

Our land purchase was official in August of 2007 (I’ll cover the whole land-buying experience in next week’s post). We got really lucky and sold our house in suburbia in May of 2008, right at the near-height of the market, before values started sliding the wrong direction. Our first big break came when a family who was looking for a specific floor plan lost out on our neighbor’s house, and was guided to our house (which had the same plan). Our house sold and we were on our way.

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Notebook cover of one of our inspiration books. Here is where we really started to give the house its own identity, and the "Maxon House" name was born. Using the "M" from my branding company's logo, we started to concept out a treatment of 'Maxon House' for signage.
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A colleague, Nick Sgambelluri and his company, League of Excellence, drew up a rendering of our address signage for the project. We went with Cor-Ten blackened steel for the material selection. The backer is a 3M reflective material that will be easily visible at night. This was the first of many examples of how this project would commission local creatives to contribute their art and craft to our project.
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A slice of the final entry and signage. There were two components, an "M" for our family and a separate address plate. Design by League of Excellence, fabrication by Island Dog Signage.
 
Much happened between August and May—again, I’ll revisit this in later posts. For now, I’ll leave you with some parting comments.

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In our early research phase we started envisioning what we wanted the house to look and feel like both inside and out. We began to cut and paste things we liked.

When we embarked on this journey we had blinders on. It was all about the house, not about the site. That would soon change. (We were about to get a rude awakening to the true realities and costs of building our “dream home.”) We had no intention of spending as much money on the property as we did, but it later revealed itself to be a brilliant decision. As we packed up the moving van with the plastic SOLD sign plastered on the real-estate sign, we knew it was official. Wheels of change were in motion. We were saying goodbye to home ownership for a while, hello to being renters again. Excitement, anxiousness, fear, joy, uncertainty—but overall hope in the face of the unknown—was in front of us. We all jumped in together, even the kids, and started the next chapter of our life.
 

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A huge part component of our project is forestry and site development. The site as we purchased it was fairly neglected and needed a lot of TLC. Working closely with the county and foresters we started to realize the potential for not only the view but the entire site. This is a bit of a sneak peak into how the site opened over time. It's a slow and painstaking process but well worth it.
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Panoramic building site image, stitched together using Photoshop.

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