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