Puyallup, Washington, is speckled with the same nondescript ranch houses and clusters of cookie-cutter developments that are scattered throughout suburban America. Chain stores break up the residential monotony, and minivans and SUVs chug in various directions. The only thing that distinguishes this from being Anywhere, USA, is the gleaming rise of Mount Rainier in the distance, which flashes its volcanic eye at the surrounding land.
To reach the house architect Ko Wibowo built for his family, you turn off the main drag up a private road hidden between a long row of mailboxes and an anonymous driveway. The road narrows and turns, and the mountain comes in and out of view before suddenly disappearing altogether. Through a tangle of blackberry bushes, the road stops at Wibowo’s house, a metal monolith rising up in place of the peak. "I wanted the house to be contextual," explains Wibowo of his design concept. "And Mount Rainier is the context. It’s the symbol of the school district, the city, and the county." He pauses, then waves his arm at the view outside his home to indicate the area where the mountain is hidden behind a copse of trees. "I wanted the house to replace the mountain as a reference."
But moving (or for that matter making) mountains is never easy. Wibowo, an architect at a firm in nearby Tacoma, and his wife, Iesabella Ariawan, a paraeducator in the local school district, had purchased a corner lot in 1997 a few miles away from their current site, with plans to sell part of the lot and build their home on the remaining land. After saving up for construction costs, the couple applied for permits in 2003 and started asking for bids from contractors. A contractor neighbor took a look at the house plans, but instead of bidding, he organized opposition to the design.
"I got this letter from him telling all the neighborhood to meet at the nearby Safeway [to discuss the proposed house]," Wibowo remembers rather grimly. "I presented my plan and drawings, but the questions didn’t have anything to do with the idea itself; instead they were questions like, ‘Hey, you’re designing a metal building, don’t you think it’s going to be hot inside?’ Stuff like that." Preferring not to live among glares from the neighbors, Wibowo and Ariawan decided to sell the lot and try again elsewhere. "We thought our dream was over," he recalls.
Still smarting from his prior attempt to build a home, Wibowo grudgingly went to check out another vacant lot at his wife’s behest. The one-acre site, comparable in price though four times the size of their previous lot, encompasses a wetlands—and agreeable neighbors—so the couple purchased the land and moved ahead with building in 2004.
Luckily, Wibowo’s original concept also worked for the new lot. "Mount Rainier is always on the southeast in the Puget Sound area," he explains. "As you come up the road, this site is in that same location." Instead of having to mollify the neighbors, the challenge here was hewing to a rather conservative budget of $350,000 (not including the price of the land). "When we designed the house, we knew that we needed to use wood and simple designs and pretty much only a few materials in our palette," Wibowo explains. The couple also saved a good chunk of money by acting as their own contractors.
The generously sized three-story, 3,609-square-foot structure "has a compact footprint to achieve cost savings and also to have less impact on the site. Building vertically up to the capacity of the foundation and the height limit is very economical," says Wibowo. Though the steel siding was not the cheapest choice, it made sense for long-term savings. "I’m not a handyman, and I don’t want to maintain the house with difficulty. With the prefinish, it’s going to stay like that for a long, long time, and I don’t need to paint or do anything. Also, the metal has that kind of glowing quality that’s reflected in the mountain," says Wibowo.
Inside, the space is spare but infused with color since "painting is the cheapest way to decorate." The ground-floor living and dining areas are green, to reflect the trees and grass, and the laundry and garage are a plebeian dirt brown, nodding to the wetlands and unlandscaped area outside. Upstairs, the colors were evidently chosen by its occupants: Twelve-year-old Tabitha’s room is pink, and her eight-year-old brother Micah’s room is a contrasting blue. Ariawan chose the lavender for the master bedroom, which, she points out, is her favorite color. It makes a serene juxtaposition with the bright green trees viewed through a wall of windows in the bedroom. The third floor, a massive unfurnished loftlike area, is "white, like the ice on top of the mountain," Wibowo says. And the red staircase? "It’s the magma of the volcano." At night, the house literally glows with color, with pink and blue and red beaming out through the windows into the dark neighborhood.
Since Wibowo’s tastes run this side of Spartan, the few family photos hung in the stairwell were "a bit of a fight" to put up, Ariawan admits. Instead, the windows act as portraits of a sort, framing the view outside and placed to look out onto greenery rather than a neighbor’s backyard. Other windows are set to maintain a sense of privacy, like the small horizontal view over the doorway that allows the family to see visitors without being seen themselves. Though Wibowo’s original design called for single-pane storefront commercial windows, a simple shift to smaller sets of residential aluminum windows trimmed almost $40,000 from their budget. The windows also were a boon for the electric bills. Since they provide so much daylight in the house, there’s no need to turn on the lights except when it’s pitch-black outside, at night. A lack of windows on the west side, combined with a rooftop hatch that whisks air through the ground-floor windows and up the stairwell, keeps the house mild at a temperate 70 degrees Fahrenheit unless the mercury dips below 50.
The lights that do illuminate the house are a series of Dan Flavinesque sculptural (and inexpensive) four-foot-long fluorescent tubes that Wibowo recessed into the ceilings of every room. Solid insulation and radiant heating throughout and rigid insulation below concrete slab on the first floor trim energy costs further. As Wibowo says, "Our old house was 500 square feet, and our energy bills are the same here." Yet with so much glass, no window coverings, and few dividing walls—"I don’t like walls," Ariawan says. "If we didn’t have any walls at all, that would be ideal"—privacy became an issue. In response, Wibowo put in floor-to-ceiling curtains that wend on long tracks through the middle and sides of every room excepting those on the third floor. Wibowo sunk a standard hospital track-curtain casing into the ceiling to hide it from view and achieve a seamless surface. The curtains were purchased by relatives in Indonesia and dyed to match paint chips from each room so that the colors of the house stay the same, even when all of the curtains are pulled.
Although modest in intent and budget, the family’s home is anything but plain. "A friend of mine who lives in a nearby subdivision tried to get into the wrong house one night," Ariawan says. "It was dark, and since she couldn’t tell what color the houses were, they all looked the same." Ariawan and Wibowo laugh and look fondly at the sunlight glinting off their roof’s metal angles. It’s clear that no matter how dark the night, they will always come home to the right place.
A former editor at Dwell, Amara recently left the glamorous life of a magazine staffer to pursue her freelance writing dream. She has written for Sunset, Wallpaper*, the Architect’s Newspaper, VIA, and Apartment Therapy.