A Mesmerizing Cabin in Puget Sound Evolves Over Several Decades

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By Jennifer Baum Lagdameo
First built in 1959 as acclaimed architect Jim Olson's first project, a modest bunkhouse in the woods grows into an extraordinary family retreat.

In 1959, when Jim Olson of the celebrated Seattle firm Olson Kundig was 18 years old and a first-year architecture student, his father gave him $500 and told him to go build a bunkhouse. Choosing the same forested land as his grandparents' summer cottage in the Puget Sound, young Olson embarked on his first project. Sadly, his grandparents' cottage was destroyed by a fire in the 1960s, but Olson's bunkhouse has remained. What began as a 200-square-foot structure has slowly evolved over the years with each remodel integrating the previous iteration instead of erasing it. 

A continual work in progress, each renovation has addressed the changing priorities of its designer: first, the structure was a bunkhouse for his friends; then, an experimental weekend retreat for a young family; and now, a quiet getaway that can accommodate both the architect's creative work and visits from his grandchildren, extended family, and friends. The Cabin in Longbranch and its transformation has become a documentation of the architect's illustrious career—what has remained unchanged over the years, however, is Olson’s deep reverence for the special site and its natural beauty. 

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In the 1980s, the retreat was made up of three tiny pavilions linked by wooden platforms. By 2003, the pavilions had been connected by a unifying roof, creating a single form grounded onto the hillside and projecting out over the landscape. 

In the 1980s, the retreat was made up of three tiny pavilions linked by wooden platforms. By 2003, the pavilions had been connected by a unifying roof, creating a single form grounded onto the hillside and projecting out over the landscape. 

Over the years, the transformation of the retreat has respected the special character of the site and integrated the surrounding nature. 

Over the years, the transformation of the retreat has respected the special character of the site and integrated the surrounding nature. 

The cabin is intentionally subdued in color and texture, allowing it to recede into the woods and defer to the beauty of the landscape. 

The cabin is intentionally subdued in color and texture, allowing it to recede into the woods and defer to the beauty of the landscape. 

The living room’s large wall of glass frames a view of the adjoining grassy field and Puget Sound, visually blending indoors and outdoors. 

The living room’s large wall of glass frames a view of the adjoining grassy field and Puget Sound, visually blending indoors and outdoors. 

Materials enhance this natural connection, reflecting the silvery hues of the overcast sky of the Pacific Northwest and tying the building to the forest floor. 

Materials enhance this natural connection, reflecting the silvery hues of the overcast sky of the Pacific Northwest and tying the building to the forest floor. 

Simple, readily available materials were used throughout: wood-framed walls are sheathed in plywood or recycled boards, and doubled pairs of steel columns support beams that in turn support exposed roof structures. 

Simple, readily available materials were used throughout: wood-framed walls are sheathed in plywood or recycled boards, and doubled pairs of steel columns support beams that in turn support exposed roof structures. 

Interior spaces appear to flow seamlessly to the outside as materials continue from inside to out through invisible sheets of glass. 

Interior spaces appear to flow seamlessly to the outside as materials continue from inside to out through invisible sheets of glass. 

In 2014, a master bedroom and two guest rooms were added, as well as a library that also works as circulation, increasing the square footage of the retreat to 2,400 square feet. 

In 2014, a master bedroom and two guest rooms were added, as well as a library that also works as circulation, increasing the square footage of the retreat to 2,400 square feet. 

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A Mesmerizing Cabin in Puget Sound Evolves Over Several Decades - Photo 9 of 11 -
Cabin at Longbranch by Olson Kundig

Cabin at Longbranch by Olson Kundig

Cabin at Longbranch site plan

Cabin at Longbranch site plan

Project Credits: 

Architect of Record: Olson Kundig, Jim Olson, FAIA
Builder/General Contractor: Tom Harris (1981); Steve Clark (1997); Mark Ambler (2003, 2014)
Structural Engineer: MCE Structural Consultants (2003, 2014) 
Lighting Design: Brian Hood Lighting Design (2003, 2014) 
Interior Design: Olson Kundig, Jim Olson, FAIA