Q&A: Architect Tom Kundig Gives Us His Take on Building the Maxon House

Q&A: Architect Tom Kundig Gives Us His Take on Building the Maxon House

By Lou Maxon
Architect Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects speaks to his client Lou Maxon about their decade-plus journey in building a modern home in Washington.

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 (Part One, Part Two) along with a video celebrating the stunning result.

When you engage with an architect or architecture firm, you spend a considerable amount of time communicating, meeting, debating and making critical decisions that impact your project. A bond is formed between client and architect, and the relationship grows over the course of the project, which helps inspire and cultivate new ideas that may find their way into the final built object. 

It was critical to us during our selection process to find a firm that was willing to listen, respond to our ideas, and have the confidence and experience to elevate and inspire the design throughout the process. We found that with Tom Kundig and Olson Kundig Architects

Tell us about how a project starts—what happens when a client inquires about wanting to do a residential project with your firm?

Tom Kundig: Projects typically start with a meeting in our office or at our client’s project site. It is important to hear our client’s ideas about what they’d like from the project. Sometimes they will have a detailed program of the spaces they would like included, or characteristics of the site that are of particular importance. Clients will often come in with clippings from magazines of things they like (materials, rooms, etc.) or printouts of favorite projects from our website. While every project is a new one with new ideas and new functions, these frames of reference help establish the look and feel our clients are after, as well as give us insight into our client’s needs.

A combination home and photographer’s studio, the Studio House is an exploration of memories and their potential to resonate over time. Remnant landscape elements, building geometries and materials from the previous home on the site reappear in the new building. These fragments act as artifacts that recall earlier times. The two-story living room/studio has a curved roof that serves as a large reflector for diffusing natural and artificial light. Details, such as the stairs, fireplace, light fixtures and hardware, are made of metal and reflect the owner’s interests in art and craftsmanship.

Specifically, how did the project start with the Maxon family?

Making the most of a modest budget, the Hot Rod House relies on a single move—the insertion of a folded steel stair—to provide circulation while becoming a free-standing 3-D sculptural element. Large pivoting windows open the house to the outside. From a technical standpoint, the house serves as an on-going research project, e.g., the window frames double as the structural moment frame for the house, and the stair is constructed without stringers.

With Lou and Kim, we met them (and their kids) at a coffee shop in a small town near the project site. We discussed their program, the types of spaces desired by the family, and their level of expectations. Because Lou and Kim had some very specific criteria, in particular a desire for their boys to grow up with a close connection to the outdoors, we knew that the fit with our work was right from the beginning. We left the coffee shop to see the project site. 

Shortly after, an initial pencil sketch was produced that set forth some of the initial ideas about the project. The project team was established shortly after with the assignment of a project manager. In this case, the project manager was Edward LaLonde, who would handle both the administrative aspects of the project development and the drawing documentation.

This artist’s studio was created out of two bays on the second floor of a former warehouse. Sliding and pivoting 9’x9’ wall panels run adjacent to the large central wood beam and allow the 3,750 square-foot space to be reconfigured as needed. A "working wall" runs the entire length of the south wall, pulling away from the exterior wall in one area to provide space for a utility room and bathroom. A new steel stair was inserted to connect the ground floor to the studio and up to a small roof deck. A skylight tops the stairwell to bring daylight into the studio and down to the entrance. The building’s history and its uses remain evident in the patina of the floors which were simply cleaned rather than resurfaced. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

What interested you about the potential for the project? How does doing a house for a young family of five add to the challenge? What about the 21-acre site?

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.

The idea of designing a modest-sized house for a family of five on a 21-acre site was a great opportunity. Having clients we knew would be engaged throughout the process made it all the more appealing. Lou and Kim made their priorities clear from the beginning and were very good about communicating their expectations, but were flexible enough through the process to allow us to work together to find design solutions, materials, products, etc. that fit within their budget. For us, it was about working with the Maxons to design a house that was right-sized.

The firm's 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. "Tom Kundig: Houses 2" features seventeen residential projects, ranging from a five hundred-square-foot cabin in the woods to a house carved into and built out of solid rock. In his new work, Kundig continues to strike a balance between raw and refined and modern and warm, creating inviting spaces with a strong sense of place. The houses seamlessly incorporate his signature inventive details, rich materials, and stunning sites from the majestic Northwestern forest to the severe high desert.

It's often reported that you enjoy having clients that are heavily involved in the process. How did this involvement enhance and evolve the design for Maxon House?

Good communication and feedback help the design process progress smoothly and efficiently…it is essential for both the architect and the client to be on the same page. From the beginning, both Lou and Kim were involved in making decisions about design options and to the ideas we presented to them. Lou has also been very involved in the process of permitting, working with the county and their agencies to satisfy the criteria of the permitting process, as well as with the initial general contractor coordination process.

Editing design to its basics is a signature theme of your work. How did you simplify the "program" for the Maxon family, and leave room for some special touches?

It is important to prioritize…to continually edit the design to align with the project’s priorities. It is also important to tell the story of the client through the architecture that we develop. In the case of the Maxon House, the key was to design spaces for the family to have shared experiences; to hold the family room at the grand view towards the end of the cantilever; and to make a connection between the house and the surrounding 21-acre landscape. From the beginning, Lou and Kim expressed interest in creating a place where the boys could grow up having access to the outdoors and a place to play. We also knew that Lou needed a place of solitude to create his graphic work, so the design of the moving studio evolved from that.

You often work with creative clients. How did your collaboration with Lou Maxon,  and the clients' willingness to take risks (with a rolling studio, being close to the edge, the cantilever, etc.), contribute to the overall experience and to the overall success of the design?

Collaboration is an important ingredient in the design process, and is a significant part of what we do in our office, whether collaborating with local craftspeople, artists, fabricators, sub-consultants or the clients. We hope you see evidence of those who were part of the design process in the built work. 

In the case of Maxon house, we were very encouraged to find Lou and family to be on board with the process and to work with us to fine-tune the design while navigating into some new territory. Lou’s ability to read drawings and his sophisticated appreciation of design helped the communication and the conversation during our design meetings. Both Lou and Kim have been great about understanding the design and being engaged throughout the process. 

Their boys also have been great participants. We have received images of Lego versions of the house, as well as several well-represented pencil sketches of the project from Jack.

Above all, we appreciate the Maxons' enormous enthusiasm towards the project and the process. They have all had a great spirit through some pretty challenging times, but have kept the energy positive and kept us moving forward to the next steps.

Shop Tom Kundig Books
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
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.

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