Seattle’s historic Magnolia neighborhood sprawls across a peninsula just south of the Ballard Locks, offering sweeping views of the Cascade Mountains and the busy shipping canal connecting Lake Union to Puget Sound. Architect David Vandervort has lived atop a hill in this community for 22 years, and he’s watched with some trepidation as massive homes have gone up on lots where much smaller houses once stood, shifting the neighborhood’s character and scale. So when the generic post-war house next door went on the market, Vandervort saw an opportunity. He could showcase his firm’s commitment to solid, sustainable design and help preserve his neighborhood’s character and integrity.
"I wanted to do something in my neighborhood that was different from some of the spec houses going up here, which are less than high quality," Vandervort says. "I wanted to create a site-sensitive, modern house. And at the same time, I could make sure that the house wouldn’t overwhelm my own yard or block our sunlight and views."
The house, which the same family had occupied since it was built in 1952, was solidly constructed but hardly a match for its fabulous site, a south-facing corner lot overlooking the canal and the Ballard Bridge. "I wanted to build a house that appreciated the land and reached out to the views and the light—without overwhelming the community," Vandervort says. A fan of the Northwest’s distinctive mid-century modern architecture, he set out to design a home that would honor "the historical architecture of the place."
Pushing the limits
Working with Paulsen Construction, Vandervort took the home down to its concrete foundation and main floor joists, letting a few of the original walls stand and recycling much of the wood back into the new construction. He added a wing with a living room and family room, a master bedroom suite, and a stair tower that pulls in light and ventilates the home. The tower also plays with the idea of lighthouses and tugboats, an ode to the active canal below. In the living room and the master bedroom, high clerestory windows bring the low, flat Seattle light deep into the house while protecting the residents’ privacy. Terraces, decks and patios provide ample outdoor space for relaxing or entertaining.
"I wanted to play out the whole sophisticated modernist statement in its extremes," says Vandervort, who also pushed the limits on sustainable materials—which is especially risky when building a speculative house (even in progressive Seattle). "Without going over the top, we tried to use certified green materials whenever they were available."
Vandervort included an array of green features rarely found in spec homes, largely because they can drive up construction costs and the builder isn’t likely to reap the long-term benefits. To save energy, two "eco-roofs" are planted with climate-appropriate landscaping. Radiant floor heat and a super-efficient condensing boiler help lower utility bills, and a $7,000 photovoltaic system generates 15 to 20 percent of the home’s electricity needs. "I wanted to include the solar system as a demonstration of what can be done, even here in our overcast, cloudy Northwest," Vandervort says. "The solar panels are a testimony to the possibilities of generating one’s own power and show how one can even net meter excess electricity back to the grid."
A family who gets it
Keeping it green bumped up construction costs by about 20 percent, Vandervort says, and his biggest disappointment was that Seattle’s normally environmentally conscious community didn’t seem to fully appreciate his efforts. Selling the house took some time.
Vandervort ran into trouble with real estate perceptions because of the home’s size: 2,700 square feet in a market and price range where 3,500 square feet is the norm. "It struggled to find its niche," he says. "It took awhile for people to really get it."
Charmaine and Richard Angino and their 6-year-old son, Michael, were the buyers who got it. Transplants from Florida, the Anginos had lived in one of Los Angeles’ experimental "Case Study" houses and were already fans of modernist homes. They bought the house largely because they fell in love with its design. "We love all the glass," says Richard, who develops affordable housing projects for a large developer. "We love the light and all the details. Nobody builds a spec house like this—with this kind of quality."
They also appreciate the not-so-big aspect of the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home. "When we told several real estate agents our price range, they kept showing us all these huge, 4,000-square-foot houses," Richard says. "This is the perfect size for us."
Charmaine is quick to add that the home’s sustainable features also were attractive. "All the nontoxic paints and finishes really appealed to us," she says.
For his part, Vandervort enjoys watching his new neighbors make their mark on his creation. "I always knew someone would come along and want to change things and make it theirs," he says. "It’s like having a child—you take it so far and then you turn it over."
The Good Stuff
• SolarFlex Millennia thin-film photovoltaic roof modules
• "Eco-roofs:" native plants and soil mix over drainage system and modified bituthane roofing
• Lifebreath heat recovery ventilator with HEPA filter
• Buderus hot-water tank with Tekmar controls for mixing water and maintaining constant temperatures
• Icynene sprayed polyurethane-foam insulation
• Salvaged and reused lumber from original residence
• EcoMax recycled-rubber flooring on upper deck
• Certified, sustainably harvested framing lumber and cedar for soffits and exterior trim.
• FSC-certified, sustainably harvested ipê hardwood on deck and stairs
• FSC-certified white tigerwood floors
• Rainscreen technique siding: waterproof membrane with batt and clear cedar board siding for increased energy efficiency and durability
• Fly-ash concrete foundation
• Native and drought-tolerant landscaping
• Milgard low-E, argon-filled commercial windows
• High, operable windows in stair tower provide stack ventilation for summer cooling
• Low-VOC paint and water-based lacquers
• Natural fiber wool carpets
• Henrybuilt cabinetry with Europly formaldehyde-free boxes and FSC-certified cores
• Naturally finished concrete kitchen countertops
• Energy-efficient appliances by Viking, Fisher & Paykel and Jenn-Air
• Dual-flush, water-saving toilets
A Conversation with the Homeowners
What do you love most about this house?
Richard Angino: The light and the long views. It’s very visual.
Charmaine Angino: I love all the light, especially here in the Pacific Northwest where it tends to be rainy. Even when it’s dark and gloomy outside, it still seems very light inside.
What’s your favorite room?
RA: I like all the outdoor rooms, decks and the tower office. The sun rotates through them, from the deck off the living room in the morning to the patio off the kitchen at the end of the day.
CA: I like the master bedroom because I feel like I’m in a treehouse. I spend most of my time in the kitchen/dining room/office space, so the master bedroom seems like a retreat with great views of Seattle.
What would you do differently?
RA: If I had the space, I’d have a two-car garage instead of the one-and-a-half. But that’s just today’s world.
CA: I’d have a little larger master bedroom closet.