Building the Maxon House: Week 16

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.
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Week 16: The Initial Design, Unveiled! 

Spring 2009 brought the next major evolution in the design of our home. We were presented with a set of schematic design plans that reflected all the tweaks and evolutions in the design. We had settled on a big picture vision of the house. All together, we got a 4 bedroom, 2.5 bath home with a guest room, utility room, kitchen, living room, and library space. We didn’t want extra bonus rooms or unnecessary spaces that would add square footage without adding function. 

Our final development area is around 3-5 acres of the entire 21 acre site. We have 16 acres of managed forest which we are responsible for and cannot develop. Once you start adding all the elements of the site requirements such as the septic system, well, buffers and setbacks for critical areas, things actually end up getting pretty tight. Fitting everything in is like a game of very intense Tetris. And there is a lot of pressure to get it right the first time.

Design detail of the entrance ramp to Maxon House. Crafted of steel with a folded plate handle, the ramp literally raises you up to the trees into the main residence.

The entrance to the residence requires you to pass through a six-foot-wide steel door. The steel of the ramp seamlessly continues into the residence and ends at the vertical steel art wall.

A schematic of the proposed living space showcases the dining room table extending into the open floor plan of the living room.

The kitchen is open to the wall of glass and views of the valley. A generous range, fridge, kitchen island and dining table are designed to be flexible enough to serve small gatherings or larger parties. In the early stages of the design process we began to think about who we may want to collaborate with on the island and table.

The entrance to each of the boys' rooms is through a barn-style sliding door. Each room has a floor-to-ceiling operable window.

An exterior detail of the floor-to-ceiling windows that will be included in each of the kids bedrooms.

Design detail of the sliding barn-style doors that will serve as the entrance to each of the boys bedrooms. The kinetic nature of the design vision is seen in various details throughout the project and aligns with the narrative that the architect set out to create.

An exterior elevation view of the proposed cantilever section of Maxon House. Here you can see the mix of different window options. The exterior will feature steel rainscreen panels that will weather and oxide to various patinas over time, becoming almost bark-like to mirror the texture of the forest that surrounds the house.

We have future plans for a detached office or studio, a recreation area that may consist of a sport court and patio or pool/hot tub, but for the purposes of the building permit set we are permitting two structures: the main residence and a carport/storage combo.


Here are some of the details. Tom Kundig proposed a 30-foot steel entrance ramp. The side of the ramp would have a design detail known as folded-plate, with the steel shaped and bent to create a handle. The ramp would be approximately 6’ wide and lead up to the entrance of the house with a moderate rise in grade to the front door.

The door, six feet wide by approximately eleven feet tall, would be steel with a large handle and would gently slide open to reveal the inside of the house. We thought it would be cool to have a glass window so we could see people coming up the ramp. The blackened steel ramp would continue into the house and would conclude at the foot of a blackened steel wall that would provide visual and structural separation from the entrance to the more public areas (the living room, kitchen) and the private areas (the bedrooms, bathrooms, hallway). The blackened steel wall was tagged as a place where we could hang a big print, or put up artwork by the kids.

Utility / Vanity

A house in the woods means lots of dirt and requires a mud room or utility room. Kundig designated a pretty good size space for laundry and storage. The room is right off the entrance of the house and shares a wall with one of the bathrooms.

Living Room / Library

The living room and library were contained within the cantilevered section of the house. The living room was walled with bookshelves; the design of the books were the design of the interior walls. A floor-to-ceiling window would provide a sliver of a peek into the house from the outside. At one we’d have a fireplace and bookshelves. All along both sides and the end would be clerestory windows, some of them operable. We’d have a wall of glass along the view side of the house facing the valley, mountains, and rivers.

Material-wise the windows would be aluminum but capped with black steel to connect with the black steel in other places. The floors would be concrete and would feature radiant heating, a staple of many Tom Kundig residences. Although our living room would be walled with bookshelves, a specific area of refuge was created in one corner for a chair and side table, designated as a library or reading space. The living room furniture was blocked out so we could visualize the pieces we might acquire. This was truly a clean slate to work from—so we had some fun trips ahead to explore furnishings, interior details, artwork, etc.

The ceiling would be left as exposed wood instead of covered with drywall. This allowed for the transparency of the inner works of the house to be revealed to keep in line with the overall design (very utilitarian) and to maximize ceiling height. My wife and I are on the tall side and who knows how tall our three boys will eventually be, so we wanted the tall ceilings. The wood provided a natural connection to our surroundings and would continue from the interior to the exterior in the form of overhangs.


We had especially grand visions for the open kitchen space. We wanted a kitchen that supported entertaining a large group of friends and family, as well as being comfortable and cozy for both informal and formal family dinners. The materials needed to be long-lasting and strong to support our family and the rough and tumble lifestyle that comes with three growing boys and a great dane.

On the opposite side of the steel wall at the entrance lives our kitchen range, a 60-inch Wolf oven. We had stainless steel countertops, MDF cabinetry, and a long and narrow kitchen island. The kitchen table (not yet designed at this point) would have wheels and could puzzle in with the island and be able to detach and move around, depending on the function we needed. Most of the time it would be connected to the island for family dinners but on special occasions it could serve more people and move closer to the views. The table was an opportunity to work with a local craftsperson or shop on something custom, made out of local materials.

My wife was the primary collaborator with Tom Kundig and Edward LaLonde during the concept and design of the kitchen. A generous pantry allowed for ample storage (a family of five with four males eats a lot of food!) and was a must-have. Special attention was paid to countertop heights and clearances on either side of the island and kitchen table. Internally at Olson Kundig, a select team of quality control folks would constantly review the design and plans to proactively head off any usability issues—a critical step. The kitchen also has an interior wall housing the SubZero Pro48, a stainless steel industrial size fridge with glass door that reveals the fridge’s contents. Our choice of appliances mirrors the overall material decisions and design aesthetic of the house.

The appliances wouldn’t be ordered until very late in the construction but they are one of the many things that need to be decided on early in the process. Kundig suggested an industrial kitchen sink with an elongated sprayer hose; this was something we wanted to include in the design. Many other details (such as countertops) are spec’d in the plans but don’t have to be completely finalized until you price out the house with the contractor—which for us was done at the design development stage.

Boys' Bedrooms and Bath

Each of our sons would get his own bedroom. The entrance to each is a sliding door made from either wood or steel. Inside there's room for a bed, a desk, a closet and a floor-to-ceiling window with a private view out to the woods. Plus or minus a few square feet, the boys' rooms are mostly identical in size. Later we may explore the option of painting the sliding doors or picking a color scheme to add some color and pop to the bedroom entrances. The boys' bathroom is across the hallway and features a shower/tub combo, sinks and clerestory windows to bring light into the room and hallway.

Den/Guest Room

The living room provides tranquility (a place to read and rest and enjoy the views) while the den/guest room is more recreation-based. An L-shaped sliding door can keep the space closed or open, depending on how we're using the room.

Master Bedroom/Bath

I almost view the master bedroom as our hotel room. It's spacious but not overly grand. It looks out to the view; we are literally nested in the forest. The space has room for a King size bed and furnishings, and separate closets for both my wife and myself (it's the first time in my life I’ve had my own closet). We argued the merits of having the kids' bedrooms so close to ours but ultimately wanted to stay close to the kids but have a sliding door so that we could have our own refuge.


We have a space for a carport or garage structure that will house our two primary vehicles, with enclosed storage for belongings, sports equipment, garbage cans, etc. The storage area is smaller than in our previous residence and in our current rental house. This is intentional. We hope to severely edit the amount of "things" we have when we move in, and only keep  what we really need. Both the carport and the residence will have steel panels similar to Kundig’s other projects, so the steel material itself will weather and oxidize over time, almost creating a bark-like exterior to the home as it seamlessly blends in with the forest setting.

An exterior elevation of the proposed residence during the schematic phase of the project.


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