written by:
June 8, 2011

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 15: Late Summer 2008.


By late summer 2008, we hit a couple milestones for the project. First, a year of property ownership. Second, we got approval of conceptual drawings for the house and transitioned into the schematic design process. Our goals for 2008 had been to select an architect or design/builder for our project, to get underway with conceptual drawings, and to do some initial site work. We were on track so far.

We spent many hours discussing the project with various county officials in this non-descript building about 45 minutes from Carnation, Washington. Our parcel falls within an unincorporated area so we were directed this special division to deal with all t
We spent many hours discussing the project with various county officials in this non-descript building about 45 minutes from Carnation, Washington. Our parcel falls within an unincorporated area so we were directed this special division to deal with all things permit-related.
2 / 7
A site survey was completed early on to map out the contours and site features so that the architects could begin placing the house in actual digital files and review appropriate setbacks and buffers as the design evolved.
A site survey was completed early on to map out the contours and site features so that the architects could begin placing the house in actual digital files and review appropriate setbacks and buffers as the design evolved.
3 / 7
I charted the project timeline in one of my many project notebooks and noted milestones along the way. Here, the concepts presented to us, the clients.
I charted the project timeline in one of my many project notebooks and noted milestones along the way. Here, the concepts presented to us, the clients.
4 / 7
A look at how the corners of the main residence nest into the edge of the slope and required setback. Olson Kundig Architects were able to skillfully
work within the stated codes and setbacks to nest the edge of the house as close to the slope as allowed.
A look at how the corners of the main residence nest into the edge of the slope and required setback. Olson Kundig Architects were able to skillfully work within the stated codes and setbacks to nest the edge of the house as close to the slope as allowed. We consulted with Associated Earth Sciences for geotechnical consultation and drilling.
5 / 7
Over time we'd receive many different full size renderings from the architect, surveyor, geotech and other consultants.
Over time we'd receive many different full size renderings from the architect, surveyor, geotech and other consultants.
6 / 7
The official stamp of our surveyor, Mead Gilman Associates. Nothing is official until its signed, stamped, sealed and delivered.
The official stamp of our surveyor, Mead Gilman Associates. Nothing is official until its signed, stamped, sealed and delivered.
7 / 7
The site of much permit-wrangling.
The site of much permit-wrangling.

As a quick refresh for those new to this blog, Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects presented initial concepts in July of 2008. The plans called for a primary residence for our family of five (and Great Dane); a carport or garage; and drawings for a future studio or detached office space for me. Kundig’s vision, based on our initial house program, was an elevated one-story, partially cantilevered rectangular volume that paralleled the slope and opened up to views of the valley and farmland. Initial conceptual drawings evolved as we moved into the schematic phase of the project.

Meet the County

Early on in the process, even before we signed papers on the land, I trekked down to the county that had jurisdiction over our future project and did some investigative work on the future parcel that we’d own, to find out if there were any hurdles we’d face later on when it came to county reviews of critical areas, potential wetlands, etc. The county offers personnel consults for free in the morning to review plans and answer questions. It’s a critical step in the process to avoid future headaches.

Even though I left that day feeling positive about our future parcel, significant issues would still surface later in the design and site development stages—things that would should have been disclosed during my initial visits. I'll speak to this in future posts.

We spent many hours discussing the project with various county officials in this non-descript building about 45 minutes from Carnation, Washington. Our parcel falls within an unincorporated area so we were directed this special division to deal with all t
We spent many hours discussing the project with various county officials in this non-descript building about 45 minutes from Carnation, Washington. Our parcel falls within an unincorporated area so we were directed this special division to deal with all things permit-related.

We sent our initial site plan agreement to a staffer at the county for review. The initial concepts showed the house cantilevering over the slope. We got some early feedback that if we wanted the cantilever to be to green-lighted we’d have to alter the angle of the house and work within the regulated county setbacks and buffers for steep slope (which is defined as a 'critical area'). We knew early on that the design was aggressive—the  living and kitchen spaces floated above the sloping hill. In order to support the design we’d need the blessing of the county—and the county in turn needed the blessing of approved geotechnical consultants. Cha-ching.

A site survey was completed early on to map out the contours and site features so that the architects could begin placing the house in actual digital files and review appropriate setbacks and buffers as the design evolved.
A site survey was completed early on to map out the contours and site features so that the architects could begin placing the house in actual digital files and review appropriate setbacks and buffers as the design evolved.

This was our first real wake-up call in terms of additional dollar outlay (ie: out of pocket costs). The county provides a list of approved geotechnical consultants, you call a few up, get a bid, make a deposit and you're underway. This sort of thing happened frequently throughout the process.

As I stated in earlier blog posts, we didn’t have the financial resources to do everything at once, so we often had to put the brakes on one element of the project in order to be able to afford the extra fees for an outside consultant. This ultimately ended up delaying the project. But for our situation it was necessary—and luckily the consultants, architects and other parties were all supportive and understanding of our circumstances, and worked with us to ensure everything connected as smoothly as possible.

I charted the project timeline in one of my many project notebooks and noted milestones along the way. Here, the concepts presented to us, the clients.
I charted the project timeline in one of my many project notebooks and noted milestones along the way. Here, the concepts presented to us, the clients.

The county doesn’t get very sentimental about the design. Whether it is a state-of-the-art modern building, a classic victorian or a double-wide, their goals are to make sure everything is up to code and doesn’t try to beat the system in any way. Respecting that early on and working carefully and in parallel with them was the only way to ensure our “out of the box” design was going to be fully realized.

A look at how the corners of the main residence nest into the edge of the slope and required setback. Olson Kundig Architects were able to skillfully
work within the stated codes and setbacks to nest the edge of the house as close to the slope as allowed.
A look at how the corners of the main residence nest into the edge of the slope and required setback. Olson Kundig Architects were able to skillfully work within the stated codes and setbacks to nest the edge of the house as close to the slope as allowed. We consulted with Associated Earth Sciences for geotechnical consultation and drilling.

Ultimately we had to step away from the design of the house for weeks and even months during the early stages of the schematic design. We decided strategically to apply for and go through a 'critical areas' review ahead of the building permit application, to ensure that we didn’t get all the way through the concept, schematic, design development and permit drawings only to find out that we had significant site issues that would require major changes on the plans.

Most architecture firms we spoke to were charging around 12-15% of the total cost of the project for the full architecture package. Making big changes to the project at a later date would not only require significant financial outlay but also push back the overall schedule.

Over time we'd receive many different full size renderings from the architect, surveyor, geotech and other consultants.
Over time we'd receive many different full size renderings from the architect, surveyor, geotech and other consultants.

Geotechnical Consultant

To complete the geotechnical work that was required by the county, we called in the services of Associated Earth Sciences, a multidisciplinary geotechnical engineering, hydrogeological and environmental consulting firm. They were on the approved county list of consultants, and having someone on board who could navigate the ins and outs of the county seemed like a plus in our minds. They came out for a site visit and quickly followed up with a detailed estimate, scope of work, and schedule, and before we knew it they were drilling into the site. The objective was to determine the stability of the slope; that is, could it support the structure we were proposing? They drilled down for samples to analyze, which would inform their recommendation report. The consultants are an objective third party, and the county in most cases sides with the consultant's findings.

It feels a little like waiting to get a critical test result back from your doctor—pretty nerve-wracking. Ultimately the geotechnical review came back in support of the design, with minor conditions regarding setback and buffers. So it was money well-spent. This was one of the first big pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. We’d later have to slightly tweak the angle, but at least we knew that Tom Kundig’s initial instinct was right: the house was destined to be as close as possible to the slope. We left the process lighter in the wallet but assured that things were moving forward.

The permit for critical areas was approved and was valid for five years from the date that it was stamped. We had until Spring 2013 to start building.

The official stamp of our surveyor, Mead Gilman Associates. Nothing is official until its signed, stamped, sealed and delivered.
The official stamp of our surveyor, Mead Gilman Associates. Nothing is official until its signed, stamped, sealed and delivered.

For previous installments of "Building the Maxon House," click here.

Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our FREE app from iTunes, friend us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016