Building the Maxon House: Week 4

Building the Maxon House: Week 4

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 Four: Picking an Approach

We must have looked at over 20 different sites in-person and online, within a search radius of 45 miles from our house at the time. Our next critical decision was: What do we want to have built, by who, and how would we pay for it? The options we considered were prefab; design-build; architect-designed and contractor-built; and pre-existing modern plans out of books and magazines. And then on top of that, we wanted to build in a green and sustainable way.


We’d been reading a lot about prefab and we were intrigued by the promise of modern design, quick construction timelines, and quality finishes. But then we’d talk to representatives from a few different companies and there was always a catch, like expensive shipping and transportation costs, specialty contractors required for setup, or additional architecture and design fees. Ultimately we discovered that prefab meant fast but not necessarily affordable. In fact, many options we priced out online would cost considerably more money—and involved less customization—than hiring an architect directly. While prefab was quickly eliminated for us as an option, it did re-appear later in the design and construction of our future home in a few different ways (more on that in later posts).

We were visiting our old stomping grounds, NYC, for a late summer vacation when I had the chance to stop by the MoMa for a show on prefabs. This little office / studio resonated greatly with me in terms of what it delivered in a small space. This would later inspire discussions about how we'd design my future studio/office space. The exhibit was an excellent education on the past, present and future of prefab.


The house scrapbooks overflowed with sketches, ideas and torn out articles from various design and architecture magazines. We began to collect photos of projects that really resonated in terms of site, style and size to what we were looking for.


The main advantage of design-build is that we could keep control, budget and planning under one roof. We explored this option with a couple different firms, but after visiting a few design-build projects we felt that the projects were very well built in terms of level of finish and materials—but there were often serious flaws in the actual design of the homes. We visited houses that were too generous in size and seemed out of scale and proportion. I won’t lie, it was frustrating. After spending previous months touring open houses within our suburban development, it almost felt like we were back at square one. Because of our remote location some design-build groups would commit to design but not build—but wouldn’t disclose this until well into providing estimates, and having follow up meetings on site. Generally, folks didn’t seem to care about wasting our time or theirs by promising one thing and later deciding they couldn’t or wouldn’t do the job all together.

We found that contractor-run design-build firms were quick to sell us on the savings of them doing inexpensive plans and not hiring expensive architects. We met with a few architect-focused design-build firms as well, and you could definitely tell that you were paying for the design and construction, and that the two worked together very carefully. Although we didn’t set out to have an architect-designed home in the beginning, it became clear to us—after visiting a bunch of modern open houses in the Seattle area—that our focus needed to shift to finding the right architect first, who could first design something that met our needs, and then pair up with the right contractor to realize the design.

This micro-house project really resonated with me after visiting in person in NYC at MoMa then seeing it in the context of its environment in a few design magazines. So simple, small and sublime.

I snapped this shot while walking by a DESIGN WITHIN REACH in Portland. This quote pretty sums up why we decided to extend our search to really find the right person/firm to design our future home. I remember someone once telling me that the hardest thing to do is something simple. We saw a lot of chaos in magazines, a lot of mixing and matching different "modern styles" but nothing to this point really spoke to us. The chaos inspired us to expand our search.

Architect Designed

It was intriguing from a creative perspective to meet with lots of architects and see the range of interpretations of modern architecture in and around the Pacific Northwest. The hardest part was narrowing the focus and ultimately making a decision and financial commitment to proceed with just one firm. We met some fantastic people along the way, many of whom we call friends to this day. I spent a majority of the time weeding out the selections and candidates before introducing my wife and later the family to the finalists. All in, we looked at a dozen or so combinations of contractors, design-build firms, and architects before we made our final choice.

I’d highly encourage anyone taking on their own project to talk to as many people as possible before making your choice, and allowing yourself ample time to find the right fit. We didn’t have a clear understanding going in as to what the role of the architect was, and what services they actually perform, and how much it all costs, and what we’d get for the money.

Generally most architects and architecture firms share similar processes and fee structures, so our discussions and education along the way were consistent from group to group, which made it fairly easy to pick up on how they work. We did tap into the local chapter of the AIA to view work and also referred to Seattle Magazine’s Top Architects lists to find which firms were well established and which were up-and-coming. We spent quite a bit of time at the bookstore tracking magazines and monographs of local architects to get inspiration. The internet was an invaluable resource for all of this and saved us considerable time.

Picking the final group was as much about talent, experience and service as it was about fit. Could we get along? Do we want to spend the next one to two years with these folks? Would they listen to our ideas and needs? Could they ultimately make architecture out of our story or were they too focused on making something cool for the next issue of the Architectural Record? Do they show up on time for site visits and meetings? Do they answer e-mails in a timely fashion? We had a couple groups who just didn’t show up for meetings or were 30 to 60 minutes late without a call. You learn a lot about folks during the interview process—it feels a bit like dating.

The reality throughout the entire process was that no option was really cheap and there were no short cuts. Knowing more clearly how much this was all going to cost us—with land, site preparation, architecture fees (typically 12-15% of the total cost per sq. ft x total sq. footage), consultants, clearing and grading, permitting, etc.—we decided that this was going to be the most expensive thing we probably ever would take on. We decided to invest in a truly unique, modern home.


Considerations around green building and sustainability in architecture and construction were front and center during our research and interview process. We didn’t just set out to build a green home, but to continue living our lifestyle in the most sustainable manner appropriate for our family.

When we bought the site, we set aside a major portion of forested acreage to preserve and protect. We also went through a FSC site audit, created a minimal building footprint, and selectively and surgically thinned trees to preserve forest health. One thing we found disappointing was LEED certification and points, medals, and trophies given out for ‘green’ homes. It felt as if some of the people we spoke to were more concerned with being the first to design a green home in the area, or to get the certifications at any cost. We felt more like their test subjects than clients that needed to be heard for what we wanted and needed in a future home.

There are a lot of cosmetic green decisions you can make that don’t necessarily do much. Our focus was really around material selection that was low to zero-maintenance, and energy savings solutions that would lower our output once we finally moved in. We’d watch home shows on HGTV where McMansions would gain LEED certification and scratch our heads wondering if all the green building programs were nothing more than contests to see who could check the most boxes For our family, we decided against chasing a plaque for our house.

In the next installment of Building the Maxon House, we will focus on how we found our architect, and how to initiate the relationship.

Our notebooks were littered with tearsheets and pull-quotes about design and architecture. This one resonated deeply. It wasn't just a search for a bigger home it was a quest for smarter, better design spaces.


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