Betty Rahman’s corner lot was something of an outlier in Portland, Oregon; at 5,000 square feet, it was occupied only by a modest, one-and-a-half-story bungalow. The 950-square-foot structure, which was built sometime around 1919, was nestled at the back of the lot, leaving ample free space for Rahman to build a larger modern house for herself.
Consultations with two architects left her cold, but eventually she connected with designer Scott Pitek at the suggestion of a mutual friend.
"The first thing I did was spend a month with her just trying to understand her, her goals, what her style and aesthetic was—not just in on a superficial level but her aesthetic of living," Pitek says. "We also asked how could that align with creating a mutual house? I say ‘mutual’ in the sense that it’s appealing to anybody, it’s laid out in a way that’s flexible, you can add walls in certain locations, and it’s logical. We wanted to create a shell that she could live in but that at the same time had no market detraction if she ever wanted to sell it. That, basically, was the goal."
Pitek says Rahman told him she wanted a modern house, but one that would fit in unobtrusively among the structures that define her neighborhood, most of which appear to have been built between the 1890s and the 1930s.
"We thought, What are some of the really simple, classic forms of structures, and there was the simple gabled-roof house," Pitek says. "She didn’t want to build a basement, so we thought, okay, a gabled-roof house is great because you’ve got all your storage up in the attic."
The discussion then moved to proportion and form. Rahman’s request was that the house be "elegant and long," Pitek says. Capitalizing on generous ceiling heights—ten feet on the ground floor, nine feet on the second floor—Pitek installed tall casement windows that swing open on hinges. "The windows on the ground floor, they have a nice syncopation to them, kind of a nice rhythm, and they’re all kind of narrow, tall windows," Pitek says.
Rahman didn’t want a conventional HVAC system, so the house is outfitted with a heat-recovery system that in the winter transfers heat from the stale, outgoing air to fresh air being drawn in from outside. In the summer, she opens her windows and lets the natural cross-ventilation cool the space. "We have transom windows at every door that separates rooms inside, and the house basically cools itself," Pitek says.
Outside, Rahman landscaped the small fenced-in garden, outfitting it with low-maintenance pea gravel and potted plants. The garden fence was built with cedar slats that Steve White, who did the interior casework, and Pitek laid in the middle of the street and charred with a blowtorch before sealing them. It’s an ancient Japanese technique called shou sugi ban, one that is designed to make the wood resistant to fire, rot, and insects. But Pitek says the look of the charred wood was as important to Rahman as its sustainable features, and the charred fence complements the James Hardie lap siding on her house.
In part by acting as her own general contractor, Rahman was able to keep construction costs to $122 per square foot. Design work started in 2010, and construction was complete by the end of 2012, Pitek says.
Will Lamb is a writer and editor based in Jersey City, New Jersey. He served as a senior editor at Dwell from 2013 to 2015.