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August 17, 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 24: Q & A with Tanner Construction

The ultimate success of a project requires much more than just a pocketbook, big dreams, and boundless enthusiasm. It requires the right team. This week I interview Brad Burgess, a partner with Tim Tanner in Tanner Construction. He shares some insights and background regarding their unique approach to our project. Tanner has a history of collaboration with Olson Kundig Architects and especially Tom Kundig, having built internationally recognized projects including Delta Shelter and the Rolling Huts.

Tim Tanner (left) and Brad Burgess review site drawings with architect Edward LaLonde and owner Lou Maxon.
Tim Tanner (left) and Brad Burgess review site drawings with architect Edward LaLonde and owner Lou Maxon.
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Delta Shelter, designed by Tom Kundig. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
Delta Shelter, designed by Tom Kundig. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
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A Rolling Hut. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
A Rolling Hut. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
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The exterior of Riley's Cove, built by Tanner Construction.
The exterior of Riley's Cove, built by Tanner Construction.
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The bathroom in Riley's Cove. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
The bathroom in Riley's Cove. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
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How did Tanner Construction connect with Olson Kundig Architects?
As you mentioned in one of the earlier posts, Tanner Construction flies somewhat under the radar. We are a small collective of craftsmen as opposed to a “construction company,” which means we do very little marketing and instead rely completely on referrals from past clients. Our strategy is to surround ourselves with good people, knowing that great projects happen mostly because of the collaboration between the people involved, not through advertising or pursuing a specific style of project. Connecting with Olson Kundig Architects was no different. We had done some work for the client who later commissioned Olson Kundig Architects to design the Delta Shelter and Rolling Huts. Even though our initial work was completely different than the Kundig projects, the client appreciated our approach and ethic so he introduced us to Tom Kundig. That relationship has continued to grow and has led to a number of projects, including the Maxon House. 
Tell us about the collaboration with Tom Kundig on the Delta Shelter and the Rolling Huts… what’s it like to be the construction partner on two very important architecture projects?
When we first looked at the drawings, it was clear that they would be beautiful structures that had a certain simplicity and modesty that gave them an undeniable raw, emotional appeal. From a craftsman’s standpoint, they clearly stood out as projects that would be challenging and allow for an intriguing amount of experimentation; that is to say they looked like fun. More importantly, the collaboration between the people involved felt right. They were both works of a strong and confident vision. When clients, architects, and builders are all committed to supporting each other in that vision, the project is bound to be a success. We couldn’t have known when we started the projects that they would end up with the iconic status they have achieved, but all the right ingredients were there from the beginning. We are proud to have been partners on those specific projects, but feel like the ongoing relationship that was formed is our real success.

Tim Tanner (left) and Brad Burgess review site drawings with architect Edward LaLonde and owner Lou Maxon.
Tim Tanner (left) and Brad Burgess review site drawings with architect Edward LaLonde and owner Lou Maxon.

What did you guys think about getting contacted to bid on Maxon House, and what were some of the first thoughts when you reviewed the initial plans?  And then when you were rewarded the job?  What was your process in putting together the bid?
We were thrilled and honored to be contacted. Of course, you never know if you are going to get a project, or even if a project will ever actually get built, but being consistently contacted is what we work for so we felt like that was a success in and of itself. Immediately, I felt the design of Maxon House had that same poetic simplicity and raw elegance that made the Delta Shelter and Rolling Huts so successful. Elements of the project would be technically challenging, but we enjoy those opportunities to expand our comfort zone. Our goal in putting together the bid was to be thorough, detailed, and completely transparent. We felt like our experience with Kundig’s detailing and process would also be a big benefit. We knew we were going up against other highly respected firms, but our hope was that our collaborative, service-oriented approach would be a good fit for you and the project. We couldn’t have been happier to hear that you agreed.
Delta Shelter, designed by Tom Kundig. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
Delta Shelter, designed by Tom Kundig. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.

What is Tanner Construction’s story?  What makes you guys unique?
Tim Tanner and I have been collaborating for a number of years. Basically, we work with a fairly small group of craftsmen which is assembled depending on the needs of each project. Metal workers, cabinet makers, carpenters; we work at finding the right people for the job at hand. By not maintaining large crews, carrying high overhead or juggling many projects at once, we stay focused and responsive. Honestly, I think it’s personal service that sets us apart from the many other technically skilled contracting firms doing the type of work we do. We try to operate at the “center space” that can often separate builders, architects, and clients. Our approach is to safeguard everybody’s interests and priorities at once. Tim is the master builder. He fits all of the pieces and people together on site, and oversees all the details no matter how small. My job is to estimate project costs, and most significantly, track them throughout the project. By knowing where the budget stands at all times, the client’s money is protected, and we can stay light on our feet, adjusting detailing and scope as necessary to hit critical budget marks. I also do a lot of the technical detail design.  Having both a building and architectural background myself, we can design details to a budget instead of the other way around. Both clients and architects appreciate the value in this approach. Our design/budget integration has earned us a lot of trust from the architects we have worked with and I think clients find considerable value in that. Essentially, we bring the traditional role of Owner’s Representative to every project.  
A Rolling Hut. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
A Rolling Hut. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.

Tell us about the first time you guys visited the site—what were your impressions?
Even though the site was rugged, we felt the same way you did. With its variety of “personalities,” lushness, and stunning vistas to the river valley below, it was easy to fall in love with it right away. We had seen the drawings before visiting the site, and it was impressive how the two were so fully integrated. It was also the first chance we really had to spend significant time with you, Kim and the kids. With our dogs bounding over moss covered logs and the moist forest floor, our slow walks around the site at different times of day really helped us get to know you guys better. Your vision for the project and commitment to the process were crystal clear, and for us, we just felt right away that it would be a good fit.
The exterior of Riley's Cove, built by Tanner Construction.
The exterior of Riley's Cove, built by Tanner Construction.
The bathroom in Riley's Cove. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.
The bathroom in Riley's Cove. Photo by Tim Bies, Olson Kundig Architects.

What are some of the unique challenges of the project thus far?
Apart from the permitting process which you have detailed in these posts already, I would say the only real challenge has been in reacting to the timing requirements of the permitting process. But that hasn’t been nearly as frustrating for us as it has been for you and your family. Ultimately, I even think there is a good chance that the project will be that much more satisfying as a result. It has had a chance to “barrel age” in everybody’s mind. Priorities have crystalized, the passion and excitement for the project has only grown stronger, and I think working through the rough spots has only demonstrated and strengthened the commitment of everyone involved.
What’s it like being part of the documentary film project and how does this add a new dimension to Tanner’s involvement?
It’s true; the camera does add 10 pounds—and we are very open to significant post production touch ups. It’s a great project and something we fell really lucky to be involved in. It will definitely bring out the best in all involved, but to be honest, for us as craftsmen it has extra meaning. It isn’t always the case that people get to see all that goes in to making a house, especially a house like Maxon House. We feel very fortunate to be working with you and Tom. Tom Kundig is well-known for respecting craft and seeing it as an integral part of the spirit and identity of his buildings. Knowing that you and Kontent Partners feel the same way and want to make that value a part of the film—well we are excited to be part of it. That said, we aren’t the most “close-up ready” group of folks, so we will take every opportunity to stand behind our work instead of in front of it. 
What’s it like to be involved with a project where the owners are heavily involved in the day-to-day process and decision making from architecture to site to forestry?
It’s rare. And it’s fantastic. Few significant architectural projects are done for regular families with real-life budgets and who are invested in the spirit of a house. It’s one of the things that attracted us most to the project and something I think will make the project more than it might otherwise have been without that involvement. When everybody shares the same values and goals, the process can be focused and fluid at the same time. And when everyone shares the struggles, it gives everyone just that much more perspective. For you as a family, I think it makes the house really become part of you, and you part of the house.
Can you share some unique aspects of the project in terms of construction methods, green building, etc?
The house is a really nice mix. It’s both high and low tech. The materials are honest and the design brings them to life through the detailing and craftsmanship that will be required to execute them. It’s nice to see this kind of project being accomplished with an attainable level of green design. So many of the newest green features are expensive and beyond the reach of most budgets. People forget that sometimes the greenest decision is to build something once, use quality materials that require little to no maintenance, and employ as many local people to build it as possible. Sometimes people can lose track of the idea that “green” can be a product of an investment in quality and time as much as it an investment in a product. It’s really nice to see all kinds of green happening in this project.
What advice would you give Dwell readers following this series about taking the plunge to pursue their own modern dreams?
Do it. But do it thoughtfully. Invest yourself, not just your hard-earned money. Take time to find your vision. And then interview as many people as you can until you find the people that share that vision and are willing to commit to both you and your project. Find people you can trust, and then trust them. And don’t forget to have fun.

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

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