Even after starting a family, a young couple in Washington never lost sight of their sense of adventure and lifelong pursuit of play. To better share their values and spend time with their extended friends and family, the couple purchased property with existing cabins on Orcas Island and tapped Seattle-based DeForest Architects to transform the site into a sustainable getaway that could be enjoyed by children and adults alike, for generations to come.
"[The clients] wanted to have a place to retreat and spend time together, a place where they could build a tradition with each other," says John Deforest, Principal, and Rosie Donovan, Project Architect, of DeForest Architects. "They wanted a place to share with friends, a place for adventure and exploring, for being a kid again, for cooking together, experiencing nature, and being part of something bigger than themselves."
The couple had interviewed several architectural practices before selecting DeForest’s firm along with interior designers NB Design Group and owner’s rep Lumberjill. "I think our combination of creativity, collaboration, and sense of adventure was a really good match," explains DeForest. "For example, since one of their goals was to engage generations of visitors, we proposed a weekend-long series of ‘Friends and Family’ workshops that helped us all get to the heart of the project."
Nestled between a rocky outcropping at the edge of the woods and the water, the property the couple purchased came with a cluster of rustic cabins that were built in the early 20th century, as well as a larger main house and a large creosote shoreline bulkhead. Even though the buildings had been updated to modern living standards by previous owners, the existing structures were showing signs of aging and felt disconnected from not only each other, but also the surroundings—several cabins had been painted an incongruous yellow and the main building obstructed cabin views.
To reconnect the buildings with the landscape, the architects built the new main house away from the shoreline to provide the cabins with views of the water and worked with landscape architects Allworth Design to create space for a sloped great lawn that would serve as a new outdoor gathering area. The existing cabins were also restored to evoke the island vernacular. To do this, the DeForest re-clad the structures in weathered materials like stained cedar and dark metal roofing to tie into the surrounding environment.
As the primary gathering space, the main house features a more refined materials palette as well as unique design elements—the most playful of which is the concealed slide that empties out into a ball pit in the basement.
"The owners asked us to build a slide into the house but not to tell them where it was," says DeForest. "The team kept it a secret until the day they moved in, which was an impressive feat!"
In addition to the slide and ball pit, a sense of play and adventure is emphasized through some of the more "adult" features of the home. These include: custom furnishings designed with subtle details important to the owner, a natural materials palette, large sliding glass doors, and an open layout that blurs the boundary between indoors and out.
Divided over two floors and a basement, the main house includes four bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms in the "family wing"—comprising a master en-suite and a kids’ ensuite bedroom—and the "guest wing" that’s located above the spacious common areas.
Sustainability was also a driving force behind the design. To reduce the property’s energy footprint, geothermal wells—drilled during the regrading of the new lawn—provide radiant floor heating in the main house and in one of the cabins, while a 20-kilowatt solar array generates renewable energy and feeds excess power into the grid. Thick insulation eliminates thermal bridging to create an airtight envelope and lock in energy savings.
The project’s largest environmental contribution was the removal of the old creosote bulkhead and shoreline restoration, an effort partly funded by a Salmon Recovery Grant administered by Friends of the San Juans. Not only did the process reconnect the beach to the lawn above, but it also greatly improved spawning habitat for forage fish, which are essential for supporting healthy local animal populations.
"Because the clients envision this as a place their family and friends will come to for many, many years, they wanted it built to last and to be relatively low-maintenance and timeless," explains DeForest, who incorporated locally sourced stone and FSC-certified timbers while steering clear of materials on the Living Building Challenge’s "red list" wherever possible. "Also, knowing that any construction is an exercise in using resources, they wanted to use those resources as wisely as possible."
Builder/ General Contractor: Krekow Jennings
Structural Engineer: Swenson Say Faget
Civil Engineer: Pacific Survey and Engineering
Landscape Design Company: Allworth Design
Lighting Design: Brian Hood Lighting Design
Interior Design: NB Design Group
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