Construction Diary: Olson Kundig Builds a Detachable Studio-on-Rails Near Seattle

Construction Diary: Olson Kundig Builds a Detachable Studio-on-Rails Near Seattle

By Lou Maxon
Following the completion of his family home, creative director Lou Maxon chronicles the building of a studio that “commutes” from the house to the woods via railway.

I’m sitting quietly, but anxiously, in the light-soaked main conference room at Olson Kundig’s Pioneer Square Seattle office as rain slowly starts to tap against the factory windows. It is my first in-person meeting with partner Tom Kundig to discuss the collaboration on our epic journey, the design and build of Maxon House. Tom and I had an hour together and would take the majority of our time talking about the program for the house before digging into the concept and pitch for my studio.

Renowned architecture firm Olson Kundig occupies three floors of a 19th-century loft building in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. A crucial concern was opening the office up to more natural light; a staircase that cuts through the office’s three levels was added underneath the central skylight, which opens via a hydraulic lift system.

The brief from my end was open-ended, and the requirement was simple: to create a detached working space from the main house. The idea was a place I could "commute" to by exiting the house and entering a space where I could work, conceptualize, and get away. 

One of the early projects that inspired me was Tom’s Brain studio, a concrete light box in the woods for a Seattle-based director. The architecture is sublime, featuring a floating steel plate loft, and a generous library and folded plate stairs with ample space to spread out and create. We discussed the Brain in depth, and I remember off-handedly saying I’d just like a mini version.

The Brain is a 14,280 cubic-foot cinematic laboratory where the client, a filmmaker, can work out ideas. Physically, a garage—that neighborhood birthplace of invention—provides the conceptual model. The form is essentially a cast-in-place concrete box, intended to be a strong yet neutral background that provides complete flexibility to adapt the space at will. Inserted into the box along the north wall is a steel mezzanine. All interior structures are made using raw hot-rolled steel sheets.

We talked a bit about another project Olson Kundig was working on that leveraged some of the kinetic engineering Tom is known for seamlessly incorporating into his residential projects. In this case, Tom had collaborated with engineer and wunderkind Phil Turner to create a moving series of spaces at a family compound by means of a system of motors, rails, and electricity. The main program could, in essence, transform having a locked state and unlocked state.

Tom’s pitch rolled on. What if you could leave the main house and enter the studio through a portal that connects the house to the studio? Inspired by the project the firm happened to be working on, the idea of moving spaces on rails by mechanical and electrical means became a hypothesis for the studio. One of the things that inspired me most about Tom—aside from the work—was a quote in his book: "Only common things happen when common sense prevails."

Set on 21 acres at the top of the Snoqualmie Valley, the 3,200-square-foot Maxon House represents a major lifestyle change for the Maxons, who previously lived in a split-level in a planned subdivision. "When you’re here, you just sit and watch what’s happening outside," says Lou. "It’s like the Weather Channel. We don’t even need the TV." Kim adds, "In spring everything explodes." Cedars, hemlocks, and vine maples shoot up from the fern-covered hillside.

The obvious answer to the brief is a detached studio on foundation with a pathway leading from the house to the woods. The next-level response and mind-blowing pitch was a detached studio on rails that would "commute" from the depot (i.e. the Maxon House) to the forest beyond.

Imagine boarding the rail-car studio, turning a mechanical wheel that triggers gears, and a small motor driving power to the axles. The studio itself locks vertically into the horizontal plane of the main house, but then detaches as it rolls down the rails into the forest.

Sold. 

A chain drive and sketch from designers and fabricators Turner Exhibits.

And the journey begins. This story chronicles the concept, design, engineering and build process of the Olson Kundig–designed, kinetic, rail-car studio. The project opened up new pathways to exploring reclaimed materials, the context and history of the site, and the role that railways played in putting the surrounding town on the map. It connected me back to some memories around making model train layouts with my dad growing up—and around the entire industry, design, and engineering of railroads and railways around the world. We look forward to bringing you along the journey. All aboard.  

You can check out more renders at maxonhouse.com

Related Reading:

Maxon House: A Seattle-Area Family Breaks Free From Suburbia and Ventures Deep Into Nature

Maxon House Construction Diaries: Building a Forest Haven With Olson Kundig Architects (Part One)Building a Forest Haven With Olson Kundig Architects (Part Two)

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