Mother Earth Living

Built to Last

A family of four blends the best of country and city life in Portland, Oregon.
By Allison Martin
July/August 2013
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Low-maintenance plants such as black-eyed Susan, ferns and sedges fit in with the surrounding woods and mean the Emericks don’t have to spend time mowing the lawn.
Photo By David Papazian
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The Emerick family lives at the end of the road in their picturesque Portland, Oregon, neighborhood, their house nestled on a wooded lot surrounded by 50 acres of forest—and only five minutes from bustling downtown Portland. On a typical morning, Melody and Brian set off for their shared architecture practice, Emerick Architects P.C., on their bikes, while their two daughters—Lily, 15, and Iris, 13—walk the mile to their school, meeting up with friends along the way. In the evenings, it’s all about the big dinner. The family comes together in the airy, open kitchen to cook dinner from scratch, then gathers around the big dining room table, built from a tree cut down during construction of the house. “That’s my favorite. I love how we sit around the big table and talk,” Melody says. Thanks to their five backyard chickens, housed out back in a coop Brian, Lily and Iris built with leftover materials from the home’s construction, it’s often omelets on the table.

A House in the Woods

The hub of this family tableaux is the house, and it facilitates all the things the Emericks value in their lifestyle—family, friends, nature. It’s hard to imagine, but the home’s amazing wooded lot had languished on the market for more than 30 years before the Emericks happened upon it in 2007. Where others saw challenges, the Emericks saw a vision. “The most common question people ask when they come in the house is: ‘How did you get this lot?’” Melody says. “It was on the market for 30 years, but I think nobody knew quite what to do with it.”

Although it’s at the end of an established neighborhood, the lot didn’t have a road to it or services such as electrical. Plus, the wooded space is under environmental protection, so restrictions limited how much of the lot could be used for the home. “We own an acre, but we could only disturb 5,000 square feet—for the home, the yard, the driveway, everything,” Melody says. “We couldn’t cut down trees for a view, but we liked that. For us, the view is the trees.”

Making homes that work with their sites is a fundamental principle of Melody and Brian’s architecture philosophy. Their firm, which has nine employees and is in its 14th year, focuses on crafting quality, long-lasting buildings and spaces. “We like to think our buildings will last a long time, and we design for that,” Melody says. As they typically do when working on a building, Melody and Brian visited the lot often, taking time to really get to know the site. “We would go up there every weekend for a year, to pull ivy out and just get to know it,” Melody says.

Brian and Melody navigated around the space constraints and sought harmony with their forested lot by designing smaller rooms than in many newly built homes; the master bedroom, typically a grand affair in new homes, is just big enough to fit a queen bed and a couple of nightstands. But the vaulted ceilings lend an airy feel to the modestly sized rooms, and the extra-large windows let that prized view of the trees shine. “We wanted it to feel like a tree house,” Melody says.

Indoor-Outdoor Living

Brian and Melody incorporated many of their firm’s design goals into building their home, but paramount among them was enabling indoor/outdoor living to take advantage of the mild Oregon climate. This was especially important to the couple for their own home, because their family loves spending time in nature—Melody works in her vegetable garden, Brian loves to fly-fish, and the whole family enjoys camping, hiking, running and riding bikes.

Expansive bifold doors help the Emericks open their lifestyle to their outdoor spaces. A wall of glass doors folds away to create a giant doorway, allowing the house to flow effortlessly into the outdoor living space. The floor of the tiled deck is at the same level as the dining room floor so the transition is smooth—plus it’s easy to carry platters of food out for alfresco meals.

During summer and into fall, the Emericks keep the large doors open so their outdoor space becomes an extension of the house. A dining area and barbecue make the deck the de facto dining room for family meals, and the mature trees keep it from getting overly hot. Because so little of the lot was disturbed, the backyard is native forest, giving plenty of opportunity to spot deer and other wildlife from the deck. A staircase connects the deck to the lower porch, ideal for watching thunderstorms thanks to its cozy position beneath the deck. The lower porch spills into a terrace with a fire pit and the lounge area, perfect for putting your feet up and reading a book. “We use all these spaces as outdoor rooms,” Melody says. “The fire pit is where we gather most mild evenings, whether just Brian and I, as a family or with guests that stop by. You feel like you are at a park with how private it is. You can’t see any people or houses, just the forest.”

Building Light

Environmentally sensitive building just makes sense to the Emericks. “That is part of having a building last a long time—really being sensitive to the surroundings,” Melody says. To lessen the burden of the building process on the land, they used advanced framing, in which stud placement is planned strategically, reducing the amount of wood required. They also installed bioswales, an alternative to storm sewers. Rather than watching rainwater filter into the city’s sewer system, the runoff nurtures a patch of native plantings.

The house is LEED-certified (it meets gold status), and was the first LEED stand-alone residence in Portland. But rather than flashy cutting-edge technologies, the Emericks relied on smart design, natural materials and clever reuse to earn the distinction. Their home doesn’t use air conditioning or much electric light thanks to a layout that emphasizes cross ventilation and large, FSC-certified double-hung windows. They opted for simple, local Oregon wide oak flooring and reclaimed wood from a big walnut tree that was cut down in Portland—destined to be firewood until the Emericks found it—for detail work, such as the mantel.

Nature-Inspired

When they’re looking for inspiration for projects, Brian and Melody often turn to the features of the Northwest—the mountains, ocean and trees—and this held true when they designed their house. The natural, local materials they chose is part of that, but it’s also about the livability of their house. The house is located on a popular walking path, so in the evenings, while the girls do the dishes, Brian and Melody can pop right out the door for a walk in the woods. They are close enough to work, school and the farmers market for a walk or quick bike ride. Friends might come over for homemade pizza or a barbecue on a weeknight, and there is enough room for Iris and Lily’s band to practice in the basement. “We love to have people over,” Melody says.

Despite all the love, work and ideas that went into designing their ideal dwelling, for the Emericks, it’s the people and memories that make their house come alive. “We get asked all the time what we’d change and what we love, but it’s our home,” Melody says. “It’s where we’ve hosted Thanksgiving for all our extended family every year, where our daughters bring their friends, where we toss the softball around. What makes a place beautiful at the end of the day is memories, and we have a lot of fun in this house.”

For more on the Emerick home, read our Chat with Melody Emerick.

3 Tips to Create a Sustainable Home

Reuse. Melody and Brian advocate reuse as a first, big step toward creating a more sustainable home. “Reusing an old building or house is great. You’re already ahead of the curve there,” Melody says. If you do build a new structure, try to find reused materials to incorporate. Keep your eye out for trees being cut down in your community to salvage or old buildings set for demolition. The Building Materials Reuse Association offers a searchable database of salvaged and secondhand building materials at bmra.org.

Think Small. “How big you make it is how much disruption you create,” Melody says. In order to keep your house’s footprint on the small side, reconsider “standard” room sizes. With high ceilings, functional storage and plenty of windows for lots of natural light, you can live smaller without feeling claustrophobic. For example, instead of adding on to your small living room, see if you can vault the ceilings, add French doors or build in cabinetry for smart storage. If you are building a house, make bedrooms big enough for sleeping, but add high ceilings and a wall of windows to live large.

Make It Last. “The best thing you can do environmentally is building it right the first time,” Melody says. Invest in quality materials and design to make your home last because replacing stuff later creates waste. Think about what you like, as opposed to what is trendy, and what you want your life to be like in your living space. Smart design and durable materials can save trouble, money and landfill space down
the road.


Allison Martin is managing editor of . She admires the Emericks’ bike commute and wants to join Iris and Lily’s band.

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