Sound Success

From its postcard-perfect vantage point overlooking Puget Sound, this striking custom home in Blaine, Wash. is a dream fulfilled for its active retiree owners who plan to enjoy their dramatic surroundings and ultra-accessible floor plan with family and friends for years to come. Designed by Seattle-based architect, Nils Finne, the home is remarkable not only for the extraordinary team work that...

January 01, 2005

The home's lower level resembles a wedge-shaped pedestal anchoring the dramatic glass and cedar upper structure to its site. Rising 12 feet high on the view side, this base features a split-face granite veneer quarried from the chain of islands in Puget Sound that the interior living space overlooks.
Aesthetically distinctive, Finne's environmentally friendly design requires the use of shorter timber lengths.
The glass at the home's entry creates magnificent through-views of its waterfront setting. The stone tower contains an elevator that connects the upper and lower levels.
The contemporary staircase is softened by the abundant use of wood including oak treads and cherry rails.
The kitchen's open design visually connects it to the adjoining living room to enhance at-home entertaining. Sliding etched glass panels can close off the space for privacy.
The living room ceiling rises 18 feet where clerestory windows take advantage of the home's striking western views. Natural materials warm the modern living space.
The master suite features a volume ceiling, water views and its own fireplace. The bed was custom designed by Finne and fabricated using computer numeric controlled technology.

See the Floor Plan

From its postcard-perfect vantage point overlooking Puget Sound, this striking custom home in Blaine, Wash. is a dream fulfilled for its active retiree owners who plan to enjoy their dramatic surroundings and ultra-accessible floor plan with family and friends for years to come. Designed by Seattle-based architect, Nils Finne, the home is remarkable not only for the extraordinary team work that went into its design, construction and furnishings, but also for the palette of natural finish materials that infuse its modern design with the charisma of an older, more traditional, residence.

"After sharing the challenges of the husband's long and successful career in the local aeronautical industry and raising a family together, my clients really considered this home to be their retirement 'prize'," says Finne.

The couple initially contacted Finne about building a new home for them after they saw him speak at an A.I.A.-sponsored seminar on topic of how to work with an architect.

Finne was inspired by the location, but not the lot. "When we checked the plat of their original site, which had a northern orientation, it became apparent that it was not workable for the design goals we'd set for this project," he says. Working with the developer, Finne and his clients selected a new site that, despite a significant front-to-back slope, had a much more desirable western orientation as well as a spectacular panorama of Semiahmoo Bay.

"This home is designed to be completely compatible with this particular site," says Finne. "It reacts with the natural topography, the view, and even the available light. The way that it is designed, this house can really only exist here."

Design Concept

The goal for this project was to create a modern home that would be a complete departure from the traditional-style house the owners had lived in before, explains Finne. Doing so meant using materials that would give the design the impression of care and craft. "This house is really a hybrid of modern and traditional elements. The volume of the interior space, flooded with light from an abundant use of glass gives the interior a soaring feeling while stone, fir, cedar, and cherry contribute to its warmth."

The 6,500-square-foot home reflects the architect's passion for Scandinavian design. "Much of modern architecture is cold and sterile, with cardboard-like materials and little detailing. These buildings will not stand the test of time. I prefer to use natural materials that actually look better over time as they acquire a rich patina from exposure to the elements," says Finne.

In order to use the site's steep incline to its best advantage, Finne created an upside down house floor plan in which the living spaces are flipped. The upper floor, which is actually at street level, includes the kitchen, living and dining areas, and master suite. The ground floor contains the home's anchor rooms - the recreation room, three guest rooms, and a study. This design not only provides the key living areas with the most dramatic views of the sound, but also confines the homeowner's most frequently used rooms to the same floor.

The base of the house is constructed in the form of a plinth or pedestal, says Finne, and projects 12-inches from the ground on the street elevation and gradually increases to a full story height on the downhill side of the home. The exterior of the base features a split-face granite veneer finish over wood-frame construction and provides the subtle visual suggestion that this part of the home is an extension of the site itself.

The wood superstructure of the main floor is constructed on top of stone-sheathed base and features a slightly smaller footprint than the ground level, creating a catwalk that surrounds the home. At the front of the home the walkway serves as the entry porch and at the rear it becomes a full-width deck and courtyard-style patio. A series of fan-shaped trusses positioned on steel-banded fir columns on the exterior of the home support the home's sloping roof system which gives the main floor interior spaces their dramatic volume ceilings. The slope of the roof plane creates a continuous 8-foot band of clerestory windows on the home's waterfront elevation.

Design Team

With its rigorous, linear design and marriage of exposed timber framing to hidden structural steel there was virtually no margin for error during the home's construction. The success of the project, says Finne, was highly dependent upon a collaborative effort. "The client, the architect, the builder, the structural engineer, and the subcontractors are all part of the same team," he says. "It is very important that everyone be able to work well together and respect each other's input."

The process, says Finne, begins and ends with his clients. "I have the knowledge and experience to present them with choices," he says, "but ultimately they make the final decision - from the design direction to the choice of builder."

According to Finne, the search for the correct builder for a specific project begins after he's prepared a highly detailed set of bid prints that permit a builder to develop a pretty accurate line item quote for a project. "We generally solicit bids from only two or three builders that we've already pre-screened," says Finne. "Before we present any builder to a client, we make sure that they are quality-oriented and have a commitment to craftsmanship and detail," he says. "But the ultimate choice is made by the client themselves. Personal chemistry can be a big factor in making that final decision."

For this project, builders Stan Starr and Bill Miers impressed both Finne and his clients with their problem solving and communication skills as well as their attention to detail. Their 8-year-old firm that they co-partner, Emerald Builders of Bellingham, Wash., has experience in all types of construction from commercial and public works projects to moderate and high-end residential construction.

"There is a difference of opinion in the building community on working with architects that insist on the level of detail that was designed into this project," says Starr. "Some builders just don't want to be bothered with it, but for us, with our experience on commercial construction projects where every element is clearly specified, it fit right in with the way we do business. Ultimately, this works to everyone's advantage. Since this home's design was so well thought out, we had very little field modification to do as it was built."

Because buildings in this part of the state are subject to severe wind and seismic forces, the input of a qualified structural engineer is also essential, says Finne. "Homes in this area require a tremendous amount of structural steel. For this project, independent consultant, Monte Clark, made sure that the structure worked with the construction."

Hurdles & Outcomes

In addition to the physical challenges presented by the 1/2-acre site, Finne had to take into consideration neighborhood covenants, which established setback requirements on all four sides, including the water elevation, as well as a height restriction on the building envelope. The neighborhood homeowner association also had to approve the design. "We had to demonstrate to them that, while the style of this house was a departure from the more traditional-style homes that they were used to seeing, it would, in fact, enhance the neighborhood."

The homeowners association also had very strict guidelines on the preservation and removal of trees. "We removed as few large trees as possible," says Starr, " and we paid particular attention to preserving the trees along the bluff that overlook the water and the back of the house. This was not only for aesthetic reasons but also because their root systems play a significant role in stabilizing the soil."

With significant elevation changes from the street to the home's footings, Starr installed a below-grade retaining wall made of concrete ecology blocks for safety and to protect the foundation from shifting soil. The retaining wall was left in place after construction and was backfilled to cover it. "Maintaining the integrity of the site is essential for construction projects in this area," says Starr. "You have to eliminate excess water in order to maintain accessibility to the site or you will find yourself working in a sea of mud." An 8-inch drain pipe was installed around the foundation to carry water away during construction. A retention area excavated in front of the section of pipe that directed water flow away from the site was used to remove any silt or debris."

With its volume ceilings, glass window walls, and exposed beams and columns, the construction of the home's upper level, while not true timber frame construction, shares many of the same aesthetic qualities that make it so appealing, says Finne. "All of the wood that supports the roof structure is visible from the inside, making it essentially finish carpentry. One of the most unique elements of this project was that the work that the rough carpenters did was going to be left exposed. In a sense they had to perform in the same capacity as finish carpenters."

Starr agrees that the construction challenge that this posed was significant. "Every measurement had to be right on because there was no chance to cover up any mistakes with drywall," he says. "You had finish walls from floor to ceiling."

Because of all of the exposed woodwork, Starr worked quickly to get the structure under roof to avoid damage from exposure to the elements. While the entire home took 14 months to build, he had the roof in place within three months of digging the foundation. When the roof beams arrived on site, they were offloaded by crane to a second crane which set immediately set each beam in place, says Starr. "We would not let them touch the ground for even a minute."

Custom Luxury Residence

Style of Home: Modernism

Location: Blaine, Wash.

Total Square Footage: 6,500 sq. ft.

Architect/Interior Design: FINNE Architects, Seattle, Wash.

Builder: Emerald Builders, Bellingham, Wash.

Major Products Used: Appliances: GE Monogram (refrigerator); Miele (dishwashers, cooktop); Dacor (ovens) Countertops: Burlington Slate Plumbing Fixtures: KWC; Kindred; Hansgrohe; Grohe; Kohler Tile: Ann Sacks; Pamas Tile Lighting Fixtures: Lightolier; Resolute;Poulsen Radiant Floor Heating: Wirsbo (tubing); Buderus Hydronic Systems (boiler) Decking: Abbotsford Concrete Products Paints & Stains: Benjamin Moore; Cabot Windows: Quantum Windows

Photography by Art Grice

On The Level

With the roof of the home's lower floor functioning as the base for the upper level balcony and rear terrace that provide the homeowners with their outdoor living space, the construction challenge for this element of the project was to create a pitched surface that would shed water and still have a level one for walking. Tapered sleepers covered with a waterproof membrane were used to create an angled watertight barrier on top of the exposed roof. "While the roof pitch allowed excess water to drain away from the house," says builder Stan Starr, "you still had to have a finished surface on top of that which you can walk on." Utilizing technology more commonly seen in commercial applications, Starr used an adjustable pedestal system which is designed specifically for sloping surfaces permitting the height of the pedestals to be continuously adjusted to compensate for the change in roof pitch. High-density, hydraulically pressed concrete pavers, supported in each corner by the pedestals, provide the finished surface for the deck. Channels are left between each paver to facilitate drainage.

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