Building the Maxon House: Week 7

Building the Maxon House: Week 7

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 Seven: First Site Visit With Tom Kundig

It was a clear, sunny spring Saturday in Carnation, the town thirty miles east of Seattle where we’d purchased 21 acres. Our house in the suburbs had sold and was all packed up and ready for moving day. The five of us arrived at Starbucks to meet up with Tom Kundig and our project architect Edward LaLonde. This was the first time my wife and three boys met the team that would be directly responsible for designing our future residence. (I’d met Tom once before, but hadn’t yet met Edward.)

The overgrown logging road, leading to our undeveloped 21-acre property.

Scenes from the site visit with Olson Kundig. Top left: Jack (left) and Henry (right) check out the proposed outline of the house. Tom Kundig explains prospect and refuge to Kim and Henry. Bottom left: the property sign outside the entrance to the site. Bottom, project architect Edward LaLonde helps tape out the slope edge of the future residence.

The purpose of the trip was to have the architects visit the site, gather first impressions, get the lay of the land, meet the family, and then visit our suburban house to get a better sense of how we liked to live and what our space needs would be for the future.

Tom’s silver BMW M3 slid into a parking space out front. After some quick introductions they followed us to the site, about a five minute drive. At this point we’d owned the property for approximately nine months, but hadn’t done any site improvements. As we began walking down the existing logging road we shared some background info and got them up to speed on the site. Edward snapped photos here and there for context, and the kids ran ahead of us exploring their future backyard.

The site was in dismal condition and would require tremendous healing to truly realize its potential. It became evident walking down the nearly 500-foot winding logging road that the lack of overhead light, the arching ceiling of diverse tree species blocking out the blue sky, and the dense forest all needed attention.

This was about seeing the forest through the trees. As we reached the vertical silver of the site’s sole view, we recalled visits from other architects: they all stood in this exact place pondering the same questions about where the house would go. This is where the experience differed with Olson Kundig. Tom kept walking. In fact, he turned the corner and walked right up to the edge of the slope where the property dipped nearly 500 feet to the remaining 15 acres of the property. He looked out on the potential view and spoke of how our house would embody the principles of prospect and refuge. One side (prospect) would open to the emerging view of endless farmland, winding rivers, the Olympic Mountain Range and rich valley below, while the other (refuge) backs onto the dense forest.

Tom turned back towards us, took a roll of measuring tape from his pocket, handed the plastic tab end to Edward, and instructed him to start walking parallel to the slope. We’d seen other architects be wary of the slope. They’d instruct us to push back from the slope by 50, 75, 100 feet. Tom was walking the edge. In their first visit to the site there was already a vision. A confidence. A plan.

A rectangular volume, nearly 115 feet in length, was blocked out at that moment. We stood back and watched as Tom and Edward mapped it out, weaving through the brush, tightrope-walking the slope edge and starting to put the conceptual foundation together for our future home. We walked the remainder of what they deemed as the building site and talked about the existing forest management plan; the limitations on what could be opened up, cleared or thinned as part of that plan; and next steps. Edward snapped a few more photos that he’d later use to build a visual storyboard to back the concepts they’d present to us in a future meeting.

Heading home (for now)
We wrapped up on site and then headed back to our house in the suburbs for a quick walk-through, to show them how we’d been living in our previous space. We had pretty much finished packing all of our moving boxes so the rooms were sparse but still gave Tom and Edward a good idea of the chopped-up floorplan of the two-story craftsman. Both my wife and I were impressed that they’d even want to see our current dwelling. It was indicative of the amount of detail and research they’d do to learn our story, get to know the family, and start to really piece together what was possible for our future home.

Overall there was a great connection between architect and client. Both Tom and Edward were engaging with the kids, involving them in the site visit, asking questions, sharing insights, stories, and, most importantly, the excitement they had for the potential of our project. We left them with a vote of confidence to move forward. Tom’s vision, quick decision making, and ability to articulate the features of the site further reassured us. Getting introduced to Edward was also critical because he would be our direct point of contact moving forward.

The next step was for us to do some homework and formulate the program needs for our project, send in a deposit to secure our place on Olson Kundig’s project roster, and prepare to move into our rental house.

Our suburban house, up for sale.


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