An Industrial Designer's House Blends Economy and Simplicity
"I’ve spent my whole life designing things," says Nick Oakley, who has worked for more than a decade as an industrial designer for Intel in Portland, Oregon, and, before that, Ideo in San Francisco. And yet his greatest design challenge—and opportunity—arose when he decided to build a house for himself. Oakley started by hiring Ben Waechter, a Portland architect whose work had caught his eye on a pair of home tours. "Ben’s work has a humility about it: a sense of purity and functionality, and a simple architectural gesture that made it stick in my head," he says.
Oakley was happy to find a house in Portland’s popular Alberta district, but at 1,200 square feet, he found it to be too small for himself and his 11-year-old daughter. Waechter’s plan used the structure’s existing 28-by-28-foot foundation and some of its walls, saving money up front. He opened up the ground floor and added 800 square feet in the form of a second story that cantilevers over both the front and rear elevations. The result-ing T-shape is the sort of simple, bold gesture that attracted Oakley to Waechter’s past work—and a practical one, allowing space for four bedrooms and a laundry room upstairs.
On the ground level, walls and floors were clad in maple for a warm, almost cocoon-like feel that’s interrupted only by an all-white Ikea kitchen. "We wanted some natural materiality in the house," Waechter explains. "But, for budgetary reasons, we couldn’t do it everywhere." So he deployed the maple in the main living space and used less-expensive drywall elsewhere. He adds, "The material palette creates a hierarchy of spaces."
In industrial design, product development requires much trial and error. Oakley worried that Waechter, like any architect, had only one chance to get the design right. "I thought, ‘It’s a prototype,’" he recalls. "I was kind of tormented by anxiety about it not being right. But we were always on the same wavelength." Now he has a working prototype—with a high return on his investment.
Brian Libby is a Portland-based architecture writer who has contributed to Dwell since 2004. He has also written for The New York Times, Architect, CityLab, Salon, Metropolis, Architectural Record and The Oregonian, among others. Libby additionally writes the Portland Architecture blog and is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer.