Construction Diary: Building a Forest Haven With Olson Kundig Architects (Part One)

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By Lou Maxon
Seattle–based creative director Lou Maxon recounts the thrills and trials of ditching the suburbs, buying 21 acres, and building a modern home with renowned firm Olson Kundig Architects.

Editor's note: In 2011, Lou Maxon chronicled the process of building the Maxon House, featured in the September/October 2018 issue of Dwell. We're republishing the story of the decade-plus journey along with a video celebrating the stunning result.

1. Redefining the American Dream

Let's start in 2002. My wife and I, our two sons, and our basset hound were nestled into a cozy craftsman on a corner lot in suburban America. White picket (vinyl) fence, cul de sac, generous backyard, cathedral ceilings, family room, bonus room, formal dining room, granite countertops—the works. It was so cliché suburbia that a company that managed residential homeowners’ associations across America photographed our house to promote their brand. To us, it was a slice of the American dream. All was quiet on the Western front.

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Life in suburbia. From left, Kim, Lou, Henry, Molly (basset hound) and front row left, Jack.

Life in suburbia. From left, Kim, Lou, Henry, Molly (basset hound) and front row left, Jack.

And then we were six. Our third son was born in the spring of 2006. With three young kids, a dog, and plenty of accumulated knick-knacks, our once-spacious, three-bedroom house started to feel like a pint-sized studio apartment. Our family was growing, and all around us real estate was bursting at the seams with new construction. McMansions and mini-McMansions were popping up like weeds. You could have the American dream super-sized. The spigot of loans and credit flowed with seemingly no end. The economy was booming; the real estate bubble was still a myth. We started looking around for more space and more breathing room.

The first real stage of the process before and after we sold our house was to gather examples out of books and magazines of what we’d like to build. We started numerous notebooks and began to collect tear sheets out of design magazines.

The first real stage of the process before and after we sold our house was to gather examples out of books and magazines of what we’d like to build. We started numerous notebooks and began to collect tear sheets out of design magazines.

We knew we wanted something different: something less cookie-cutter, more deliciously different, and completely us. We began searching for land. We started tearing pages out of home magazines. I started subscribing to Dwell. Where our architectural palate was once limited to only Victorians and faux-Craftsmans, it now exploded into a world of midcentury modern, prefab, green houses, and Northwest Modern. Notebooks accumulated. Magazines sprawled across our coffee table.

After visiting at least a dozen sites, one afternoon I got a call from my wife that put our dreams into light-speed mode. She was trolling real estate sites looking at properties. I remember only a few words: 21 acres. Small town. Forested acreage. Valley view. Visit tonight. This was Spring 2007.

2. Buying the Land

We made an offer. Then a counter-offer. About two months later, we had two mortgages, 21 acres, a house to sell, a house to build—and no clue how either was going to happen any time soon.

A huge component of our project was forestry and site development. The site as we purchased it was fairly neglected and needed a lot of TLC. Working closely with the county and foresters, we started to realize the potential for not only the view, but the entire site. This is a bit of a sneak peak into how the site opened over time. It was a slow and painstaking process, but well worth it.

A huge component of our project was forestry and site development. The site as we purchased it was fairly neglected and needed a lot of TLC. Working closely with the county and foresters, we started to realize the potential for not only the view, but the entire site. This is a bit of a sneak peak into how the site opened over time. It was a slow and painstaking process, but well worth it.

Our land purchase was official in August of 2007. We got really lucky and sold our house in suburbia in May of 2008, right at the near-height of the market, before values started sliding the wrong direction. Our first big break came when a family who was looking for a specific floor plan lost out on our neighbor’s house, and was guided to our house (which had the same plan). Our house sold, and we were on our way.

When we embarked on this journey, we had blinders on. It was all about the house, not about the site. That would soon change. (We were about to get a rude awakening to the true realities and costs of building our dream home.) We had no intention of spending as much money on the property as we did, but it later revealed itself to be a brilliant decision. 

Neither of us have any training as architects or draftspeople. Learning to read and understand site diagrams and drawings became a necessary skill, since we spent a considerable amount of time researching options on house location, site setbacks, and forest practices along the way.

Neither of us have any training as architects or draftspeople. Learning to read and understand site diagrams and drawings became a necessary skill, since we spent a considerable amount of time researching options on house location, site setbacks, and forest practices along the way.

As we packed up the moving van with the plastic SOLD sign plastered on the real estate sign, we knew it was official. Wheels of change were in motion. We were saying goodbye to home ownership for a while, hello to being renters again. Excitement, anxiousness, fear, joy, uncertainty—but overall hope in the face of the unknown—was in front of us. We all jumped in together, even the kids, and started the next chapter of our life.

3. Choosing How to Build

Our next critical decision was: What do we want to have built, by whom, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 emails 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.

4. Discovering Tom Kundig

We received a bunch of architecture books for Christmas in December of 2007, but one turned out to be a game-changer—Tom Kundig: Houses.

Tom Kundig: Houses

Tom Kundig: Houses

A month passed, but I couldn’t get the work out of my head. The kinetic nature of his work was incredibly inspiring to both myself and my wife. The book became my new architecture bible. Each project was an object of desire: A concrete-and-glass box in the woods. A set of kinetic steel shutters. A dragon steel staircase. A wall of windows that lifted and opened up to the lake view with the turn of a wheel. It was architecture nirvana.

Delta Shelter, Mazama, Washington, 2002.

Delta Shelter, Mazama, Washington, 2002.

I remember the moment it all began. It was a typically windy and rainy evening in January. The kids were asleep, and I was in my home office trolling around olsonkundig.com, checking out all the different projects. I ended up on the contact page and started typing in our information: my name, our contact info, and a brief synopsis of our story. I asked if our site, our family, and our project was something Tom Kundig and the firm would have any interest in.

Hot Rod House, Seattle, Washington, 2006.

Hot Rod House, Seattle, Washington, 2006.

I knew this was a 100-percent high-risk, high-reward situation. The type of projects featured in Houses were not conservative by any means. They would require a leap of faith. I read in the introduction that Kundig appreciated that architecture was not a "money back if you’re not satisfied" type of deal. This intrigued me. The other takeaway from the book was the quote at the beginning: "Only common things happen when common sense prevails." We had the opportunity to take the safe route and we opted out. And opted in to Kundig.

Some time passed, and we heard nothing. I wondered if my message submittal was lost in the ether. Then we got a call in early Spring 2008.

5. Calling Tom Kundig

An initial phone call was set up, and when the phone rang months later, I found myself speaking directly to Tom. 

I must have looked like a bee trapped in a box, buzzing around my office on my cell phone. We talked for nearly 45 minutes.We discussed the background, the site, and the opportunity. It was clear to me early on that we shared similar beliefs on design principles in general—simplicity, honesty of materials, importance of site. 

Recognized for his seamless integration of architecture and landscape, Kundig’s projects are unique in their meticulous attention to detail and in the materials used, which are often left in their natural, raw state. His ingenuity is evident in the experiential nature of his work, in his use of kinetic architectural features, and in his reinvention of structural elements that are often overlooked.

Recognized for his seamless integration of architecture and landscape, Kundig’s projects are unique in their meticulous attention to detail and in the materials used, which are often left in their natural, raw state. His ingenuity is evident in the experiential nature of his work, in his use of kinetic architectural features, and in his reinvention of structural elements that are often overlooked.

Our discussion left me abuzz. He seemed genuine. Authentic. Super-nice guy. A rebellious and genius spirit. Nothing like what I’d experienced from any other architects we spoke with. He sounded as though he felt just as fortunate and appreciative to work with us as we felt about working with him. I was impressed by the generous amount of time he took to answer questions and to get to know our project. I was on cloud nine.

Click here to read Construction Diary: Maxon House by Olson Kundig Architects (Part Two).

Shop Tom Kundig Books
Tom Kundig: Houses
Tom Kundig: Houses
The work of Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig has been called both raw and refined, as well as super-crafted and warm.
Tom Kundig: Houses 2
Tom Kundig: Houses 2
Our 2006 monograph Tom Kundig: Houses was an instant critical and commercial success. Over the past five years, Seattle-based Kundig has continued his meteoric rise, collecting numerous awards, including the 2008 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Architecture Design.