Courtyard House on a Steep Site

Mercer Island, Washington

The site for this challenging residence is a steeply sloped, 50’ wide by 400’ long site located along the western shore of Mercer Island. A history of landslides resulted in the demolition of former residences on and adjoining the site. The property is uncharacteristically urban, with neighboring houses sited only a few feet away to the north and south. While specifically designed for a husband and wife and their two children, the Owner requested that the residence also be designed as a speculative development should they wish to sell the property in the foreseeable future. Strict height limitations imposed by zoning regulations necessitated that a large portion of the residence be placed below grade.

The design was shaped by three primary objectives: (1) to elevate the experience of pedestrians as they descend into the site and residence; (2) to maximize the amount of natural light into the residence, in particular to open living areas located below grade; and (3) to provide the dining and living spaces with views to the Lake and courtyards, but with privacy from the neighboring houses. To address the issues of circulation and natural light, outdoor rooms and terraces were carved into the slope of the site to create private outdoor courtyards that allow daylight into the below-grade portions of the residence, and that create a series of cascading levels which facilitate pedestrian circulation into and around the residence. A formal entry sequence leads visitors through and across a series of stairs, terraces, bridges and water features. After descending a final stair, the visitor has arrived at the front door, literally in the center of the house.

Utility and ancillary spaces are housed in below-grade rooms created by site/retaining walls. Private bedrooms and associated bathrooms are situated in a floating wood volume that hovers above the site. Everyday dining and living spaces occur in the glass-enclosed open level that is sandwiched between these two architectural elements. The primary courtyard space is set at this main living level, with large expanses of glazing that afford views through the open level of the house to the Lake beyond.

A limited exterior and interior material and color palette was utilized. Exterior wall finishes are cast-in-place concrete at below-grade conditions, and a custom wood siding system stained dark at above-grade conditions. Interior walls and ceilings are gypsum board painted white. Windows are wood with conventional trim detailing, painted white to amplify the light entering the opening. Casework is recessed and painted white to blend into the walls. Floors are a wide-plank white maple. Exceptions to this palette occur at the main living and dining spaces, where the kitchen cabinetry is dark Wenge, the custom fireplace is clad in blackened steel, and the ceiling is white oak to match the wood floor and to enhance the notion of a space bound by volumes above and below.

Design Team: Robert Hutchison & Tom Maul, Hutchison & Maul Architecture
Principal-in-Charge: Robert Hutchison

Robert Hutchison Architecture uploaded Courtyard House on a Steep Site through Add A Home.
Add your own project for the chance to be featured in Editor's Picks.

Get a Daily Dose of Design

Sign up for the Dwell Daily Newsletter and never miss our new features, photos, home tours, stories, and more.