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Building the Maxon House: Week 3

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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 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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
    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.
  • 
  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.
  • 
  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.

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