A Sustainable Island Retreat Boasts a Secret Slide and Ball Pit

On San Juan’s largest island, a beat-up cluster of cabins gain new life as a fun-filled and environmentally sensitive getaway for a family, their friends, and future generations.
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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."

Located on Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands in Washington, the year-round retreat includes a new main house and six renovated cabins loosely arranged around a semi-circular lawn facing the beach.

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."

The Black Tusk Basalt flooring from the indoor living areas are continued in the outdoor patios to create a seamless flow between the indoors and outdoors.

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.

"The choice of materials was made to fit the palette of the landscape and evoke the traditional farmhouses and cabins of the islands, but with a modern take that fits the freshness of the clients and that would serve them for generations to come," explain the architects, who clad the buildings with stained clear Western Red cedar siding as well as wood salvaged from snow fences and old barns. Natural stone quarried and fabricated in British Columbia grounds the main house.

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!"

Located in the storage area in the back of the kids' closet, the slide spirals down to the basement. "The contractors deserve the biggest kudos for keeping the slide secret during construction," says DeForest. "They installed the slide very early in the construction schedule, then diligently covered everything up and kept it off limits as a ‘mechanical space’ whenever the clients were on-site."

After the clients discovered the location of the slide, they decided to add a ball pit in the basement where the slide empties out.

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.

"As you enter, you turn and the beams direct your attention to the view through the dining room to the water," notes DeForest. "As the floor steps down, the living spaces open up to a generous scale that is fully open to the view and the outdoor terrace." The dining chairs are from Case Furniture sourced from Design Within Reach.

DeForest Architects designed the custom extendable dining table with key compass points set in with metal inlays that point to special places in the owners' lives. William Walker Woodworks built the piece.

"The steel-and-wood beam details in the living room, dining room, and kitchen are a nod to the fact that the big open span facing the water is achieved with a large steel beam up in the ceiling from which all those large wood beams are suspended," notes the firm. The natural materials palette in the interior includes Pioneer Millworks 'Prairie' reclaimed wood siding for the walls, stained clear vertical grain cedar ceilings (main level), and solid end grain hemlock flooring by Oregon Lumber.

This custom coffee table was also designed by the architects and built by William Walker Woodworks. The table's metal inlays mirror the constellations, planet, and moon positions on a date important to the owners.

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.

The centrally located kitchen is the heart of the home and the prime gathering space. Glazed sliding doors open the space up to the BBQ patio and the beach-facing patio (not pictured here). Note the outdoor pizza oven that's enclosed in a salvaged and modified steel buoy—a nod to the multiple smokers and stoves made of steel buoys originally found on the property.

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 hallway pendant was another custom design made by Decorative Metal Arts with vintage glass buoys sourced from Along Shores Décor. "The panels behind the banquette seating in the stair hall are magnetic, so people can leave notes about their plans for meeting up or for outdoor adventures, or just as a place to exchange pleasantries," adds DeForest.

To hide visual clutter, storage is hidden behind wood paneling. Built-in areas, like the reading nook, also contain secret storage.

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.

Large operable walls of glass open the master bedroom up to an outdoor deck. The client's bed is equipped with casters to allow it to roll in and out onto the deck.

The master bath features Everstone Parc porcelain tiles and Crossville Ready-to-Wear Porcelain Stone for the accent wall.

"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."

The guest wing includes a bunk room with eight beds located opposite the bunk bathroom.

A peek inside the bathroom opposite the bunk room.

Orcas Island Retreat basement plan

Orcas Island Retreat main level plan

Orcas Island Retreat upper level plan

 Project Credits:

Architect of Record: DeForest Architects / @deforestarchitects

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

Other: Lumberjill Inc.


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