written by:
March 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 Three: Thoughts on site...

 

When we started we thought it was all about the house. Our thinking was: find cheap land and voila, the rest would take care of itself. As we later engaged with the architect and his work, we learned that site carried at least the same weight as the architecture of the eventual house. Each feature of the site we would engage with had its own opportunities and challenges. We hadn't considered this as we embarked on our site search and selection. In the end, we selected a site purely on instinct and raw potential. This decision, although risky, proved to pay off down the road as we experienced the complete transformation of the site and its true beauty. All photos by Maxon House unless otherwise noted.

At no time during our site search was our priority finding a multi-acre forested site—but as anybody looking for a new home knows, sometimes you go in looking for one thing and come out with something completely different. Early in the site selection we v
At no time during our site search was our priority finding a multi-acre forested site—but as anybody looking for a new home knows, sometimes you go in looking for one thing and come out with something completely different. Early in the site selection we visited the parcel many times. As many times as we could, we brought the whole family. We’d bring colored vinyl tape and start to block out areas where we thought the house could potentially go.
1 / 17
I gathered that the couple we bought the property from did a little Edward Scissorhands job on the very narrow sliver of a view. Seeing the forest through the trees became a mantra for us as we engaged with county foresters and embraced forest practices.
I gathered that the couple we bought the property from did a little Edward Scissorhands job on the very narrow sliver of a view. Seeing the forest through the trees became a mantra for us as we engaged with county foresters and embraced forest practices.
2 / 17
Slowly the site revealed its potential. The sliver view transformed into a  slice. Then evolved into an entire window. Like standing on someone else’s shoulders to see further, the progression of small changes and our thinning efforts revealed a new vista
Slowly the site revealed its potential. The sliver view transformed into a slice. Then evolved into an entire window. Like standing on someone else’s shoulders to see further, the progression of small changes and our thinning efforts revealed a new vista: A red farmhouse. A winding river. Layers and textures of rural country side.
3 / 17
First steps: Moving timber, making roads, clearing and thinning dense forest. It proves to be an ongoing logistical challenge—such as who to call to ship timber, who to manage the thinning and cutting, etc. And for Jack, our middle son, the big question i
First steps: Moving timber, making roads, clearing and thinning dense forest. It proves to be an ongoing logistical challenge—such as who to call to ship timber, who to manage the thinning and cutting, etc. And for Jack, our middle son, the big question is: how to leverage native materials from the site into a fort.
4 / 17
Early on, friends and family would always ask, “have you broken ground yet?” Though the answer was always no, I felt like each time we wrote out a check or visited the site, we had in fact begun the real journey. To reduce the cost of the overall project
Early on, friends and family would always ask, “have you broken ground yet?” Though the answer was always no, I felt like each time we wrote out a check or visited the site, we had in fact begun the real journey. To reduce the cost of the overall project and future fees associated with architecture and consultants, I managed much of the site development myself. This meant that each detail and the minutia attached to the development (surveys, geotechnical work, drainage review, clearing and grading, drilling a well) felt like a small victory. Due to the fact that we couldn’t afford to write one giant check to cover it all, we chipped away at it one thing at a time. In turn I think we really gained a deeper appreciation for each thing we were paying for, and how it fit into the entire puzzle.
5 / 17
As the site started to develop, wonderful opportunities came along to leverage some of the cut timber. A friend, <a href="http://turn-style.blogspot.com/2010/03/whats-in-thar.html">Terry Doyle</a>, who I actually met through the <a href="http://www.facebo
As the site started to develop, wonderful opportunities came along to leverage some of the cut timber. A friend, Terry Doyle, who I actually met through the Facebook page I had started for the project came out one Saturday and took some remnant timber and made us a small salad bowl from part of a cherry tree stump.
6 / 17
To practice living with the site, we made an effort to visit it at all different times of day and during different seasons. We picked up two recyclable plastic chairs, made a coffee table out of a cut stump, and would read the paper and have a beer or a M
To practice living with the site, we made an effort to visit it at all different times of day and during different seasons. We picked up two recyclable plastic chairs, made a coffee table out of a cut stump, and would read the paper and have a beer or a Mountain Dew while taking in the view. One of the most important things I learned along the way was that, when it came to getting to know the site and accepting it as a character in this story, I had to embrace the snails pace of everything. There was no instant gratification.
7 / 17
I also learned that you can’t just wipe down a site. Sites are messy and complex organic things. As I began to imagine the house's location on the site, I began to get my hands dirty during each visit. I brought along a shovel and marking tape, to start v
I also learned that you can’t just wipe down a site. Sites are messy and complex organic things. As I began to imagine the house's location on the site, I began to get my hands dirty during each visit. I brought along a shovel and marking tape, to start visualizing forms and shapes. Even though I didn't know anything about required setbacks, slope requirements or anything geotechnical, getting a shovel in the ground felt productive. The site would later be professionally surveyed (notice the silver tags on the trees). Before much of the initial building site was prepped, I remember thinking how flat it all seemed—but upon reviewing the actual survey and contours, I realized we were actually dealing with some challenging slope issues.
8 / 17
The existing mounds of dirt, mountains of fallen or cut trees, and the odd stake made for a natural opportunity to play. Here, Charlie runs his toy motorcycle over the freshly cut end of a marking stake.
The existing mounds of dirt, mountains of fallen or cut trees, and the odd stake made for a natural opportunity to play. Here, Charlie runs his toy motorcycle over the freshly cut end of a marking stake.
9 / 17
Well before we signed on to write this blog for Dwell we started documenting this project for our own personal story, taking digital photos and iPhone snaps. The early and very raw frames helped to begin create a visual road map for the site. What would t
Well before we signed on to write this blog for Dwell we started documenting this project for our own personal story, taking digital photos and iPhone snaps. The early and very raw frames helped to begin create a visual road map for the site. What would the experience be driving down the road to the potential building site? What would the entrance look and feel like? I called on my own background creating brand experiences for clients and tried to connect that to the challenges I started to see with our new project.
10 / 17
I’d estimate that the site was walked, staked and mapped out at least a hundred times before we even hired the architect. We had lots of questions and lots of time to experiment with marking tape from our local hardware store.
I’d estimate that the site was walked, staked and mapped out at least a hundred times before we even hired the architect. We had lots of questions and lots of time to experiment with marking tape from our local hardware store.
11 / 17
We were really inspired by nature. We’d be on the site and see deer, bugs, even bears. We used survey information to learn about the different species of trees. We'd stop to listen to the rain ricocheting off a leaf. We soaked up the color palette of our
We were really inspired by nature. We’d be on the site and see deer, bugs, even bears. We used survey information to learn about the different species of trees. We'd stop to listen to the rain ricocheting off a leaf. We soaked up the color palette of our surroundings, with the intention of bringing that same feeling into the home we were going to create.
12 / 17
A move is always a big adjustment for kids. Leaving the suburbs, friends and classmates was a scary proposition. That transition was made somewhat smoother by bringing the kids to the site, and inviting their friends up. We’d set up a hammock and throw a
A move is always a big adjustment for kids. Leaving the suburbs, friends and classmates was a scary proposition. That transition was made somewhat smoother by bringing the kids to the site, and inviting their friends up. We’d set up a hammock and throw a ball or frisbee. While the visits were usually brief, it all added up to creating comfort and familiarity with our future backyard.
13 / 17
The site afforded the opportunity to not only learn about responsible thinning and clearing but also to have a FSC audit to get the entire site <a href="http://nnrg.org/nw-certified-forestry/About%20FSC%20Certification">Forest Stewardship Council</a> cert
The site afforded the opportunity to not only learn about responsible thinning and clearing but also to have a FSC audit to get the entire site Forest Stewardship Council certified.
14 / 17
The original access to the site consisted of an existing logging road. The road would eventually require widening to meet requirements. Orange tags wrapped trees that would need to be thinned per our <a href="http://your.kingcounty.gov/ddes/cao/pdfs/factf
The original access to the site consisted of an existing logging road. The road would eventually require widening to meet requirements. Orange tags wrapped trees that would need to be thinned per our Forest Management Plan.
15 / 17
This is the end of the logging road. The different colored marking tapes designate areas to be thinned, timber boundaries, property markers, etc.
This is the end of the logging road. The different colored marking tapes designate areas to be thinned, timber boundaries, property markers, etc.
16 / 17
Our site's slope will require setbacks, buffers, and costly geotechnical drilling to ensure stability in order to support a residence.
Our site's slope will require setbacks, buffers, and costly geotechnical drilling to ensure stability in order to support a residence.
17 / 17
At no time during our site search was our priority finding a multi-acre forested site—but as anybody looking for a new home knows, sometimes you go in looking for one thing and come out with something completely different. Early in the site selection we v
At no time during our site search was our priority finding a multi-acre forested site—but as anybody looking for a new home knows, sometimes you go in looking for one thing and come out with something completely different. Early in the site selection we visited the parcel many times. As many times as we could, we brought the whole family. We’d bring colored vinyl tape and start to block out areas where we thought the house could potentially go.

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

Modern prefab summer home in Madeline Island, Wisconsin
Prefab construction simplified the building process of this northern Wisconsin summer home, where all materials required ferrying across Lake Superior.
May 30, 2016
This unrealized plan reimagined the city’s downtown and included a large green area next to the capitol building and paths to bring people to the Delaware River
In her new book, Wild by Design, Margie Ruddick shows us how to get closer to nature.
May 30, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent joa herrenknecht berlin cstudio joa herrenknecht berlin loftsw livingr02 studiojoaherrenknecht 2015
Size doesn't intimidate this ambitious designer.
May 30, 2016
modern fjallbacka sweden pine boxes vacation facade
Architect Gert Wingårdh creates a passionately outfitted vacation home for two midcentury furniture dealers on the western coast of Sweden.
May 29, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent driaan claassen cape town south africa ccourtesy of driaan claasen dualpage82
Driaan Claassen combines a variety of materials and a love of history to create distinct objects.
May 29, 2016
energy star dirk wynants extremis poperinge beligium sustainable farmhouse facade
The owner of an outdoor furniture company updates a 19th-century farmhouse.
May 29, 2016
Modern small sustainable weekend home with flat roof
Two linked 1,000-square-foot pavilions are greater than a sum of their parts.
May 28, 2016
inside out los angeles home barbara bestor hollywood outdoor facade charcoal paint pool
Architect Barbara Bestor transforms a Hollywood Hills home by opening up its interior to the site’s dramatic backyard topography.
May 28, 2016
right of laneway vancouver garden sliding glass western window systems door outdoor
A Vancouver garden blossoms alongside fresh development.
May 28, 2016
20160229 dgd highhouse 1777 1024x683
A toddler, a pup, and their parents fit onto a 16.5-foot-wide plot in an inner suburb of Melbourne.
May 27, 2016
rec
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 27, 2016
capitol gains seattle multifamily living dining room wassily chair chaise le corbusier cb2
Two Seattle architects design and build a dynamic multifamily structure on a formerly vacant lot.
May 27, 2016
modern beach house thatch roof living dining bar cart
By eliminating walls and incorporating a series of interior gardens, architect José Roberto Paredes creates an eclectic and inspired El Salvador beach house.
May 27, 2016
7
A two-story Eichler in San Francisco gets a freshening up.
May 27, 2016
Bathyard renovation in Madrid, Spain
In Madrid, Spain, Husos Architects renovate a turn-of-the-20th-century apartment for a client with dual passions: her houseplants and a nice, long bath.
May 26, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
May 26, 2016
starting over sturgeon bay facade tongue and groove new growth cypress  0
After a devastating fire, architect David Salmela designs a house to replace a beloved lakeside retreat in Wisconsin.
May 26, 2016
Modern home with brick base and cedar rain screen on top level
An architect reimagines an outdated brick garage by designing a graceful new family home atop its foundation.
May 26, 2016
sardenya lr 7
A renovation brings light and order to a Spanish flat, maintaining its standout ceilings.
May 25, 2016
pow 5 25 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
May 25, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent thom fougere winnipeg canada cthom fougere studio thom fougere saddle chair 2
Designer Thom Fougere plays with scale and typology to create playful furniture.
May 25, 2016
prs my16 0067 v001 1
In the worlds of architecture and design, we’re always looking for the best ways of supporting sustainable building practices. This awareness doesn’t have to stop at our driveways but rather, it can extend to the cars we choose to take us to the places we go each day. With Toyota’s 2016 Prius, the daily task of getting from point A to point B can now be experienced with a new level of efficiency, safety, and style.
May 25, 2016
mountfordarchitects western australia
On a narrow site in Western Australia, Mountford Architects makes the most of a tight spot—with an eye to the future.
May 25, 2016
San Francisco living room with Wassily chairs
Materials and furniture transformed the layout of this San Francisco house, without the need for dramatic structural intervention.
May 24, 2016
shiver me timbers tallow wood kitchen
A pair of married architects put their exacting taste to work on their own family escape in the Australian bush.
May 24, 2016
in the balance small space massachusetts cantilevered cabin glass facade
When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
May 24, 2016
Wooden Walkways
A home in Ontario, Canada, demonstrates how factory-built housing can be as site sensitive as traditional construction.
May 24, 2016
15 icff 5
From Corian furniture to immersive installations, here are some of our favorite designs we saw at the 2016 shows.
May 24, 2016
gpphoto44
A home and community celebrate natural remove in unison.
May 24, 2016
With our annual issue devoted to the outdoors on newsstands, we did a lap of Instagram for some extra inspiration.
May 23, 2016