Building the Maxon House: Week 1

Building the Maxon House: Week 1

By Lou Maxon
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 One: The Story Begins...

Let's start in 2002. My wife and I, our two sons, and our basset hound were nestled into a cozy craftsman on a corner lot in suburban America. White picket (vinyl) fence, cul de sac, generous backyard, cathedral ceilings, family room, bonus room, formal dining room, granite countertops—the works. It was so cliché suburbia that a company that managed residential home owners’ associations across America photographed our house to promote their brand. To us, it was a slice of the American dream. All was quiet on the Western front.

Entry view of our 2,300-square-foot craftsman house. 'Traditional' pillars made of PVC tubing provide support for the porch and eave roof.

Slice of existing living space. Lots of craftsman detailing, pre-built spaces for television, fireplace, etc.

View from side yard. Corner lot, white picket fence, mountain view and streets lined with suburbia.

The first real stage of the process before and after we sold our house was to gather examples out of books and magazines of what we’d like to build. We started numerous notebooks and began to collect tear sheets out of design magazines.

We started looking at different variations on modern architecture. Finding not only photos of houses we liked but houses in the setting helped to inform some of our ideas and visions for the project.

During our research phase we both used Post-It notes to offer comments and thoughts on stuff we liked. The entire process is extremely collaborative between husband and wife to align not only the needs for the project but also the prioritize things within and outside of scope and budget.

And then we were six. Our third son was born in the spring of 2006. With three young kids, a dog and plenty of accumulated knick-knacks, our once-spacious three-bedroom house started to feel like a pint-sized studio apartment. Our family was growing and all around us real estate was bursting at the seams with new construction. McMansions and mini-McMansions were popping up like weeds. You could have the American dream super-sized. The spigot of loans and credit flowed with seemingly no end. The economy was booming, the real-estate bubble was still a myth. We started looking around for more space and more breathing room.

We spent weekends visiting open houses and touring new construction, looking at renderings of new mini-developments within mothership master-planned communities. But visit after visit we felt increasingly lost. What started as a problem about space soon evolved into an opportunity for better living. Our experience was limited to split-level houses, condos, town homes—and, after college, a tiny rental in Manhattan. But we’d never lived in a ‘modern’ house. I make no apologies, but for us—until recently, at least—a finely built craftsman in suburbia was a dream.
With two kids enrolled in the newly minted neighborhood school, moving out of our subdivision would mean transferring schools. If we were going to make that move we were determined to make it be a big step. Just as we did when we moved to New York, then moved back to Seattle, and then moved out to the ‘burbs, our family expansion created a new opportunity. As the once-obvious choice—buying a bigger, more spacious McMansion—faded from the picture a new, more hazy but thrilling prospect emerged: Buying land, and building our Barbie dream home. But way cooler and definitely not Barbie-style.

We knew we wanted something different: something less cookie-cutter, more deliciously different, and completely us. We began searching for land. We started tearing pages out of home magazines. I started subscribing to Dwell. Where our architectural palate was once limited to only Victorians and faux-Craftsmans, it now exploded into a world of mid-century modern, prefab, ‘green’ houses, and Northwest Modern. Notebooks accumulated. Magazines sprawled across our coffee table.

Calling us naive at that point would be an understatement. After all, our previous just-add-water suburban house sprouted up out of the ground in six short months with one trip to the store to pick out "upgrades." We had no budget. No knowledge. No resources. And we still lived in a house we owned, in an economy that was starting to bubble and would soon bust at the seams.

After visiting as least a dozen sites, one afternoon I got a call from my wife that put our dreams into light-speed mode. She was trolling real estate sites looking at properties. I remember only a few words: 21 acres. Small town. Forested acreage. Valley view. Visit tonight. This was Spring 2007. 

To be continued...

Future site view. Overgrown 21+ acre forested site.

Better view shot of site slope and terrain. Photo by Thor Radford.

The true beginning. Selling our suburban house and transitioning to a rental while we begin the entire process.

Life in suburbia. From left, Kim, Lou, Henry, Molly (basset hound) and front row left, Jack.

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