Usually when a house stays on the market for over a year, it has problems. Maybe it’s slinking its way down a hillside, in need of a new foundation. It might already be occupied by termites, or perhaps it’s downwind from a rendering plant or under a major airport’s flight path. There are a plethora of pitfalls that can stymie the residential real estate market, but in the case of the house architect Brian White and his wife, Deborah, bought in Portland, Oregon, it was much simpler: “It was just a little loser of a house,” claims Brian.
The couple had been looking for a plot on which to build from the ground up, but a friend recommended they check out a house just south of downtown in the leafy enclave of West Hills. They did, and weren’t impressed. “It wasn’t a very appealing house,” says Brian. “It was dark and cramped.” A few months passed without much progress, but Brian couldn’t get the “ugly duckling” of a home out of his head. “I started thinking that this was an incredible neighborhood—it’s only ten minutes from my office and the backyard is next to a nature preserve. So I started sketching.”
During a slow period 15 years ago, Brian, who with partner Michel Weenick runs the firm Architecture W, took up painting. He later developed an unusual working process that begins with brushstrokes. “I usually do about 10 to 20 paintings for each project,” he explains. “They go from being complex to being simpler and simpler reductions until all the scratches and brushstrokes are just pure composition. With painting you look at things in a different way than you would a rendering or on a computer. It gets me away from thinking too architecturally.”
Although in its present state the home couldn’t accommodate the couple’s spatial needs, Brian’s sketches and paintings for the 1,700-square-foot house led him to conceive of setting a modern box atop the typical suburban ranch, expanding it to 2,600 square feet. With a plan to renovate and expand in place, the couple bought the house in May 2003, sold their other house, and were moved in by October.
Due to Portland’s soggy climate, which averages 151 days of precipitation per year, the renovation work had to wait until spring 2004. In the interim, Brian was able to exchange ideas with Weenick, who lives and works in Nagoya, Japan, and is the lead partner at Architecture W’s office there. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the two collaborate on projects on both sides of the Pacific. “Architects get so wrapped up in their own work that it becomes like a dog chasing its tail,” Brian comments. “We bounce ideas off each other, and, although we joke about not being computer-savvy, are able to exchange drawings and details fairly easily.”
Brian, along with Urban Design Build Company, came up with a two-phase construction schedule. In part, this was predicated on the fact that Deborah was now pregnant with their second child. Brian reminisces, “I would not recommend that the two coincide. However, I did find that that is the best motivation to get a project completed on time—it is hard explaining the reasons a project won’t be finished on time to a pregnant woman.” Urban Design Build Company, whose sole experience up to this point had been building kitchens, did the construction work. “There was a learning curve for them, but they did an incredible job,” Brian adds. With the couple and their young daughter, Grace, living in a sea of boxes—only a trail between kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom remained—work began in earnest in February.
The first order of business was to dig out the six-foot-eight-inch-high basement to a more manageable eight feet. With the house set into a steep hillside, the extra dirt was used to level out the sloping backyard—one of Deborah’s original stipulations was that the kids should have a yard to play in. Working with a limited budget, Brian’s plan was to recycle as much as possible of the original house in creative ways, including the dirt.
During this phase Brian also gutted the ground floor—opening up what had been a warren of cramped rooms into a light-filled, livable space. “It was fun,” he recalls, “but I would never want to do it again.” He also relocated the stairs, which originally wrapped around the centrally located fireplace, to the northwest corner of the house. “I kept thinking that if you build another floor, you’re going to be looking at the underside of the stair. It took me a couple of weeks to figure it out, but once I did everything else seemed to make much more sense.”
The next major step came in June, when Portland’s spring rains traditionally give way to a dry summer. Brian and his crew tore the roof off the house and covered it with a blue tarp. “It was a weird place to live when the wind started blowing,” Brian recalls, but he was also taken with the blue lighting effect. “It created the most remarkable quality of light in the opened framed house.” It only rained once, and soon the second floor started coming together.
“It looked really bad,” says Weenick, recalling a visit to the house under construction, “like a trailer on top of a regular house.” With its irregular window openings, the second floor, constructed of exterior-grade T111 plywood, didn’t exactly charm the neighbors in its unfinished state. “One woman told us we were ruining the neighborhood,” says Brian with a wry smile.
Although the neighbors would have to wait and see, the architect had some tricks up his sleeve for the second story’s exterior. The plywood box was subsequently covered with a black-stained cedar rain screen that sits a few inches off the exterior walls. “It not only adds variation and character, but takes the heat in the summer and deflects cold in the winter,” Brian explains. Constructed in four-foot segments and exactingly screwed in place, the screen can easily be repaired and replaced.
Since he's an experienced painter, it's no surprise that Brian is taken with different qualities of light, which are expressed architecturally through the range of fenestration on the second floor. A large opaque louvered window dominates the stairwell and fills the hallway with light (often a fuzzy yellow reflected from the house across the street). In the guest bathroom, slits were cut in the exterior cedar screen for a unique variation. In the master bathroom, a skewed steel frame (which the contractors referred to as "the dog collar") surrounds a square window and throws a shadow on the otherwise flat elevation.
As summer came to a close, the team met their construction deadline of August 24, Deborah's due date, which turned out to be exactly the same date the couple had their baby, Markus. “A tight budget forces you to look at things you normally wouldn’t, and use your money in more creative ways,” Brian muses. “We bought the smallest, cheapest house in a nice neighborhood and turned it into this funked-up modernist thing by creating a workable composition while keeping as much of the original as possible. We couldn’t have gotten the total package we ended up with otherwise.”
Sam Grawe served as the Editor-in-Chief of Dwell from 2006 to 2011.