Building the Maxon House: Week 15

Building the Maxon House: Week 15

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 15: Late Summer 2008

By late summer 2008, we hit a couple milestones for the project. First, a year of property ownership. Second, we got approval of conceptual drawings for the house and transitioned into the schematic design process. Our goals for 2008 had been to select an architect or design/builder for our project, to get underway with conceptual drawings, and to do some initial site work. We were on track so far.

As a quick refresh for those new to this blog, Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects presented initial concepts in July of 2008. The plans called for a primary residence for our family of five (and Great Dane); a carport or garage; and drawings for a future studio or detached office space for me. Kundig’s vision, based on our initial house program, was an elevated one-story, partially cantilevered rectangular volume that paralleled the slope and opened up to views of the valley and farmland. Initial conceptual drawings evolved as we moved into the schematic phase of the project.

We spent many hours discussing the project with various county officials in this non-descript building about 45 minutes from Carnation, Washington. Our parcel falls within an unincorporated area so we were directed this special division to deal with all things permit-related.

A site survey was completed early on to map out the contours and site features so that the architects could begin placing the house in actual digital files and review appropriate setbacks and buffers as the design evolved.

I charted the project timeline in one of my many project notebooks and noted milestones along the way. Here, the concepts presented to us, the clients.

A look at how the corners of the main residence nest into the edge of the slope and required setback. Olson Kundig Architects were able to skillfully work within the stated codes and setbacks to nest the edge of the house as close to the slope as allowed. We consulted with Associated Earth Sciences for geotechnical consultation and drilling.

Over time we'd receive many different full size renderings from the architect, surveyor, geotech and other consultants.

Meet the County

Early on in the process, even before we signed papers on the land, I trekked down to the county that had jurisdiction over our future project and did some investigative work on the future parcel that we’d own, to find out if there were any hurdles we’d face later on when it came to county reviews of critical areas, potential wetlands, etc. The county offers personnel consults for free in the morning to review plans and answer questions. It’s a critical step in the process to avoid future headaches.

Even though I left that day feeling positive about our future parcel, significant issues would still surface later in the design and site development stages—things that would should have been disclosed during my initial visits. I'll speak to this in future posts.

We sent our initial site plan agreement to a staffer at the county for review. The initial concepts showed the house cantilevering over the slope. We got some early feedback that if we wanted the cantilever to be to green-lighted we’d have to alter the angle of the house and work within the regulated county setbacks and buffers for steep slope (which is defined as a 'critical area'). We knew early on that the design was aggressive—the  living and kitchen spaces floated above the sloping hill. In order to support the design we’d need the blessing of the county—and the county in turn needed the blessing of approved geotechnical consultants. Cha-ching.

This was our first real wake-up call in terms of additional dollar outlay (ie: out of pocket costs). The county provides a list of approved geotechnical consultants, you call a few up, get a bid, make a deposit and you're underway. This sort of thing happened frequently throughout the process.

As I stated in earlier blog posts, we didn’t have the financial resources to do everything at once, so we often had to put the brakes on one element of the project in order to be able to afford the extra fees for an outside consultant. This ultimately ended up delaying the project. But for our situation it was necessary—and luckily the consultants, architects and other parties were all supportive and understanding of our circumstances, and worked with us to ensure everything connected as smoothly as possible.

The county doesn’t get very sentimental about the design. Whether it is a state-of-the-art modern building, a classic victorian or a double-wide, their goals are to make sure everything is up to code and doesn’t try to beat the system in any way. Respecting that early on and working carefully and in parallel with them was the only way to ensure our "out of the box" design was going to be fully realized.

Ultimately we had to step away from the design of the house for weeks and even months during the early stages of the schematic design. We decided strategically to apply for and go through a 'critical areas' review ahead of the building permit application, to ensure that we didn’t get all the way through the concept, schematic, design development and permit drawings only to find out that we had significant site issues that would require major changes on the plans.

Most architecture firms we spoke to were charging around 12-15% of the total cost of the project for the full architecture package. Making big changes to the project at a later date would not only require significant financial outlay but also push back the overall schedule.

Geotechnical Consultant

To complete the geotechnical work that was required by the county, we called in the services of Associated Earth Sciences, a multidisciplinary geotechnical engineering, hydrogeological and environmental consulting firm. They were on the approved county list of consultants, and having someone on board who could navigate the ins and outs of the county seemed like a plus in our minds. They came out for a site visit and quickly followed up with a detailed estimate, scope of work, and schedule, and before we knew it they were drilling into the site. The objective was to determine the stability of the slope; that is, could it support the structure we were proposing? They drilled down for samples to analyze, which would inform their recommendation report. The consultants are an objective third party, and the county in most cases sides with the consultant's findings.

It feels a little like waiting to get a critical test result back from your doctor—pretty nerve-wracking. Ultimately the geotechnical review came back in support of the design, with minor conditions regarding setback and buffers. So it was money well-spent. This was one of the first big pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. We’d later have to slightly tweak the angle, but at least we knew that Tom Kundig’s initial instinct was right: the house was destined to be as close as possible to the slope. We left the process lighter in the wallet but assured that things were moving forward.

The permit for critical areas was approved and was valid for five years from the date that it was stamped. We had until Spring 2013 to start building.

The official stamp of our surveyor, Mead Gilman Associates. Nothing is official until its signed, stamped, sealed and delivered.

The site of much permit-wrangling.


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