Building the Maxon House: Week 9

Building the Maxon House: Week 9

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 Nine: Developing the Maxon House ‘Program’

Before Olson Kundig Architects could get started on the design we had to do some homework of our own. The first step was for my wife and I to measure out the spaces in our existing house and then come up with a wish list or "program" for our future home. We needed to determine which spaces we wanted and what we could do without moving forward (bonus rooms, separate formal vs. informal living areas, etc.). This effort was made easier by the fact that our house had sold and the rooms were pretty much cleaned out and boxed up in preparation for our move to our rental house. It was clear after adding up the square footage in our existing space and then penciling out the wish list for the new house that we didn’t need substantially more space, just better designed space. One critical aspect of the program process was to remember that the program had to work not only for the day we moved in, but also be flexible enough to accommodate our family for the long-term.

Our original notes of space needs for our house program.

Doing More With Less

The list of needs were categorized into ‘must haves,’ ‘nice to haves’ and ‘wish we could haves.’ Our family would definitely need a four-bedroom, 2.5 bath setup. Unlike our current setup we wouldn’t require separate dining, formal and informal rooms in our new home. There were compromises to be made and having come from the land of suburbia where ‘more’ was, well... more, it was refreshing to reexamine priorities and think differently about how we could maximize space and ultimately live better with approximately the same amount of square footage. This was a bit of a reality check for us. When we started this whole journey we were just looking for bigger and better. We’d learned a lot quickly.

Additional details on our house program defined by Olson Kundig Architects. We had our list of 'must haves' and 'would love to haves.' The firm helped us further define and prioritize these needs so we could make decisions that would lead to the space they would eventually design.

Learning Architecture

After we sent off the email detailing our program I dove back into the press clippings, Tom’s book and Olson Kundig Architects’ website to start understanding how the details we wanted would be realized in our house. I printed out photos of projects from their website and started to patch together collages of details into our notebooks to start visualizing how things might look.

When we started the search for an architect, we began keeping notebooks of tearsheets of different architects' work. Now that we had hired Olson Kundig Architects, we focused future notebooks on Kundig’s work, making notations on particular details and features we thought would be a good fit for our home.

For my wife, this was a critical step in beginning to visualize the house. I revisited the notebooks often, adding notes. I figured the more I familiarized myself with Kundig’s work, the easier it would be for me to speak to the details when he revealed our plans.

Interior design details of Tom Kundig’s Delta Shelter.

Special Project

A key component of the "program" was the inclusion of an office/studio space where I could do my work. I was looking for something small in terms of square footage but unique and bold in terms of what I had seen Kundig deliver with other clients. The idea was to closely collaborate with him on the office and take some risks creatively and structurally. We had spoken in depth during our initial meetings about wanting to do something different and having the office/studio be a separate structure from the main residence, but we hadn’t gotten into more granular details. This part of the project was of particular interest to me—one creative designing the space for another was guaranteed to be a fun project on its own. I was excited to see what he envisioned for my space.

We were drawn to Kundig projects that had relevant site considerations and details and kept printouts and notes to help us while communicating with the firm.

The Wait

By now it was late Spring, early Summer 2008. We’d moved out of our house in the suburbs and settled into a rental in the same neighborhood so our kids could stay in the school. Our next step was to wait while Tom Kundig developed the initial concepts based on the "program." Then the call came: the concepts were ready. We were anxious and excited. We had just returned from a family trip to Yellowstone and en route were able to visit Kundig’s Chicken Point Cabin in Idaho. The firm had set us up with the owners to chat briefly and tour their home. Its one thing to see a space in books and magazines but to see it in the flesh takes the experience to a new level.

A pocket door detail from Chicken Point Cabin, a Kundig project we had the opportunity to visit with the whole family.

Next week: the concepts for Maxon House.


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