A Seattle-Area Family Breaks Free From Suburbia and Ventures Deep Into Nature
The story of Kim and Lou Maxon’s house starts with a book. More specifically, an architecture monograph about Seattle–based firm Olson Kundig that Kim gave Lou for Christmas, Tom Kundig: Houses. "Which is now known around here as the most expensive book ever," Lou says, with a laugh. It was 2007 and the family had recently added a third child to the mix, and their modest suburban home outside Seattle, with its vinyl siding and planned-community setting, didn’t suit them anymore. The timing was right, and Lou fell in love with Olson Kundig’s style of landscape-integrated modernism.
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A few months earlier, the couple had bought a 21-acre, densely forested plot in Carnation, Washington, overlooking the bucolic Snoqualmie Valley. Lou wanted his three boys to get a chance to experience what his own Seattle childhood had been like, "in a house that backed up to a huge forest, where we’d run around in the woods, play Star Wars, and climb trees." Lou, who’d founded a branding agency, already had strong modernist leanings. Though Kim favors Craftsman and wraparound porches, she soon saw the light. "I realized that kind of house wouldn’t take advantage of this view, and the porch would make it too shady, and a lot of windows would be nice, and before you knew it, here we are." She chuckles. "Lou had this vision, and I learned to trust him."
Though they interviewed a dozen or so firms, they ultimately chose to go all in with Olson Kundig. Lou recalls the opening quote from the book—"Only common things happen when common sense prevails"—and says, "We had the opportunity to take the safe route and we opted out." On their first visit, principal Tom Kundig and project architect Edward Lalonde immediately saw the land’s potential. "It was the perfect site for that prospect/refuge balance we’re always trying to find in a home location, with the forest behind, protecting you, and the prospect view out over the valley," says Kundig.
The Maxons decided to keep 16 acres under forest management, and took their role as stewards of the rest of the land seriously, attending state forestry classes in the evenings. The whole site is now Forest Stewardship Council–approved, with any felled trees becoming paper or wood products. They also cleared only a little more than an acre to build on, under the watchful eye of a forestry consultant.
It wasn’t just the trees that provided these former suburbanites with an education in rural homebuilding, however. "It was everything," Lou remembers with a sigh. A tree fell over and created a pool of water, which the county said required a wetland delineation (costing $15K). The house is on a 400-foot-deep well ("deeper than Snoqualmie Falls!" Lou points out), and, because the county requires that private wells achieve a certain amount of water production, the bank wouldn’t issue the monthly draw from their loan until they increased the gallons per minute. As Lou says, "It was like going into a restaurant and the chef brings out twenty courses and you don’t know how much it’s going to cost until you get the bill."
"Our strategy with these houses is to do tough on the outside, soft on the inside, like a Tootsie Pop." Tom Kundig, Architect
Once they finally broke ground in 2014, though, the 3,200-square-foot house easily fell into place with the help of contractor Schuchart/Dow. Perched on a bluff, the structure is cantilevered slightly into the woods, "hovering above the ground, so the forest can grow underneath and you feel more immersed in it," says Lalonde. Mild steel clads the exterior—weathered in places by the wind and rain to a burnished orange—and, except for a vertical slice of a living room window, the driveway-facing side of the house is kept private, with only clerestory windows along its length.
"Our strategy with these kinds of houses is to do tough on the outside, soft on the inside, like a Tootsie Pop," says Kundig. Step through the massive front door—a steel slab that pivots on a semi-truck axle—and a wall of windows frames the view of swaying cedar and hemlock trees in the foreground, with the valley splayed beyond. The house is long and lean, "so that when you’re in any room, the idea is to feel all four sides of the land," explains Kundig.
One end of the house is anchored by a capacious gathering space comprising the living, dining, and kitchen areas. The other end contains the master suite, with the boys’ three bedrooms and a den lining the hallway in between. Black and white colors predominate—"it’s Stormtrooper Palette," jokes Lou—accentuated by pops of "Maxon red," a Pantone-matched shade that Lou’s grandfather, an original Detroit ad-man, used prolifically in his work. With poured concrete floors underfoot and warm plywood ceilings overhead, it’s a perfect neutral backdrop to the family’s busy lives.
Step through the massive front door and a wall of windows frames the view of swaying cedar and hemlock trees in the foreground, with the valley splayed beyond.
The last piece of the puzzle? Lou’s detached office, a two-story space in the final stages of planning that will be set on repurposed Great Northern Railway tracks. When it’s finished, it will slide 110 feet out to the forest and back to the house, powered by an electric motor. "I wanted a detached studio so that there’s a physical experience of leaving the house and entering the building," says Lou. "It was really about commuting somewhere."
On any given weekday, Kim comes home as Lou powers down his computer for the evening. Their three boys, now 12, 15, and 18 years old, may be romping in the woods with the family’s two Great Danes or playing fetch with them in the long hallway. An owl might flit across the sky as the sun drops behind the hills, with the light flickering pink and orange through the windows. More than a decade in the making, the home is, as Lou affectionately says, "like our Barbie Dream House."