Standing Tall: A Modern Seattle Remodel

A modernist Seattle remodel—a risky speculation home—is a testament to integrity and intention.

| September/October 2006

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."

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