A Place to Call Home: The Imagination and Influence of Whidbey Island Architects

Posted in Spotlight

This article is from the Spring/Summer print issue of Whidbey Life Magazine. You can find out where to get a copy of your own at the end of the article.

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
August 30, 2017

From grand manors to one-room cabins, all kinds of houses exist on Whidbey Island. Although several things influence the size and appearance of our built structures, the budgets and tastes of the owners are primary among them. And to some extent, the diversity of island houses reflects the diversity of those who design them—our local architects.

Mira Steinbrecher’s modern interpretation of a Scandinavian farmhouse commands full views of the shipping lanes. (Photo by David Duncan Livingston)

Is there a style or type of house that represents the quintessential Whidbey Island home? Does the influence of place exert a unifying effect? Or any effect at all?

Four island architects reflect on how the spirit of place shapes their aesthetic and finds its way into some of our island dwellings.

Stig Carlson (Photo by Jay Cordary Photography)

Stig Carlson of Stig Carlson Architecture is best known among islanders for his design of the Coupeville Library and its generously proportioned reading room, which includes a wall of windows, several comfortable chairs, and a fireplace. Capturing the view—whatever it may be—is one thing Carlson aims to do in the buildings he designs.

Although tourist magazines and local realtors seem to focus on property that overlooks water, Carlson knows that, no matter where we live, we all like to see what surrounds us. Waterfront is expansive, and frequently expensive, but each house achieves its own particular chemistry with the Salish Sea. A high-bluff house has a different relationship with the water than a quaint beach cottage. Both enjoy the water, but in different ways—a broad view versus immediacy.

On Whidbey, views that mimic water abound: wide prairies that softly roll across the land, the edge of a prairie forming an entrance to a forest where the views are vertical instead of horizontal. Whidbey offers towns for those inclined toward higher-density settlements, historic buildings available to those seeking to restore and steward, and more than enough settings where a contemporary-style building would look like it belonged there

The interior of a farmhouse-style residence designed by Matthew Swett includes recycled glass tiles at the fireplace, reclaimed fir floors, salvaged doors, and an entry bench built by the homeowner. (Photo by Michael Stadler)

The relationship between view and site is evident in Cathedral Bluff House, designed by Carlson and completed in 2015. This Northwest Modern home overlooks Admiralty Inlet and offers views of water, mountains, and whatever flies or sails by. A remodel of the house gave Carlson the chance to integrate it fully into the site. He lifted the house to better pull in the view and included walls of windows designed to move aside to invite the outdoors in. Wood visually warms the house via tongue-and-groove ceilings, exposed beams, and paneling. An open floor plan reflects the openness of the water and allows access to views from several areas of the house. The building treads lightly and sits comfortably on the land.

To Carlson, it makes sense to use materials—wood and stone—that echo the land and pair them with other materials—glass, steel, concrete—that don’t call attention to themselves.

Matthew Swett (Photo by Reuben Prensky)

Visitors reaching the island via the Clinton ferry drive past a creation by Matthew Swett of Taproot Architects. The picnic shelter at the small and lovely Clinton Beach Park exhibits several features typical of Swett’s philosophy of “design with deep ecological roots.” The shelter is capped by a living roof; plants substitute for shingles in order to slow storm waters and absorb, rather than reflect, sunshine. Recycled glass tiles add style and divert waste from the landfill. Beautiful artworks acknowledge the island’s art community.

That same sentiment is expressed in Swett’s residential designs. Natural materials figure prominently, especially if recycled or reused. Deconstructing rather than demolishing a building creates a supply of wood, tile, concrete, and glass that serves a house well, but also adds patina and heritage. Swett thinks of it as an accumulation of stories built into the walls, floors, and ceilings.

Designing for ecological concerns extends to the less visible parts of a house, according to Swett. A living roof catches rainwater. Filters and cisterns clean and store water for gardening and emergency supplies. Staggered stud walls may not look much different from the outside, but on the inside, they prevent heat loss—and the extra depth allows greater insulation. Less heat loss means less energy required to power the home, reducing global warming one house at a time.

This Northwest Modern home, the “Cathedral Bluff House,” was designed by Stig Carlson and features a wall of glass and an open floor plan to maximize views. (Photo by Red Crow Photography)

Swett seeks to understand the values that drive his clients and to design accordingly. He also finds joy in creative solutions that make the best use of space; for example, combining a covered porch and a dog kennel into one area for a family of dog lovers who wanted their pets physically and emotionally close.

Swett sees a trend on Whidbey toward designing for multiple generations. Heirloom houses, built from long-lasting materials, are meant to outlast and appeal to more than one person, one family, or even one era. The concept agrees with Swett’s own emphasis on sustainability. Recycle, reuse, reinvent

Mira Steinbrecher (Photo by Heléne L. Chandler)

Mira Steinbrecher is known for houses that belong to nature: they don’t stand out, and they are built with materials from nature. Her clients appreciate their homes, but in their hearts and minds, the natural world comes first.

Hundreds of decisions and choices are made as a new home, or even a remodeled one, comes together,” she said. “Starting with ‘good bones’ early in the process, and getting the siting right, is the secret sauce that makes a house a home.”

Light is central to Steinbrecher’s design considerations. She anticipates how sunlight will travel through a house, placing bedrooms in the east in order to catch the sunrise. She places working and living spaces to capture mid-day sunshine; good lighting helps people get things done. West-facing areas, with their waning light, are conducive to relaxing at the end of the day, to drawing in and drawing close.

Throughout the day, covered decks and porches provide living rooms that don’t have to be heated or kept pristine. These spaces host projects, pets, and transitional activities (like pulling off boots and shoes in wet weather).

Carlson’s greatroom features a 20-foot-wide NanaWall system and floor-to-ceiling windows capturing southwestern views of Admiralty Inlet and the Olympic Mountains. (Photo by Red Crow Photography)

Designing for weather isn’t simply a matter of using the right materials. Gardeners and sailors are keenly aware of Whidbey Island’s microclimates. Depending on topography and vegetation, two sites a half mile apart may have different temperatures and winds. A properly designed home takes into account prevailing winds that may shift with the season and quality of light (shaded, filtered, or direct). At our northern latitude, a room that receives ample light in the summer may be shaded in the winter. Solar tubes, skylights, and light fixtures can give a boost to a sun that barely skims the horizon. Shades are a simple, but frequently overlooked, solution for keeping cool in August.

Steinbrecher has found that those who hire her seem to share certain qualities: an eye toward pragmatism, a fondness for recreation, and a regard for good design.

The walk-in shower wall in Mira Steinbrecher’s design becomes the backup for this custom-made vanity. (Photo by JK Lawrence Photography)

Islanders tend to be pragmatic people. Maybe it’s the climate. Maybe it’s the culture. Whatever it is, function trumps form. While the appearance of a house is important, it is simply the jacket draped over the proper bones. Kitchens must work. Spaces should be efficient. Mudrooms and slate floors make sense. Islanders are also active. Some people need more room for their toys: skis, kayaks, climbing gear, fishing gear.

Steinbrecher’s greatest joy is in observing how her clients relate to their home, and she has a checklist of questions that help her assess their level of satisfaction. “Do they feel comfortable, at ease, happy? Do they smile when they arrive? Do the homes accommodate their everyday needs? Do they feel ‘at home’? And are their houses ‘at home’ in the world around them?”

Ross Chapin (Photo by Deborah Koff-Chapin)

Langley is the home of Ross Chapin Architects. Several local businesses occupy buildings that Chapin designed; a walk through town can be a tour of his work. (Chapin is also the genius behind Thomas Berry Hall, a cathedral-like space at Clinton’s Whidbey Institute.]) Chapin’s concept of Pocket Neighborhoods has become known internationally as a new way to live in community while retaining individuality, and Langley’s Third Street Cottages are an intriguing example.

The fundamental principle behind Pocket Neighborhoods is the recognition that human beings are social creatures. For decades, most housing has distanced people from each other. Large lots provided privacy, but they separated neighbors. Oversized houses separated family members.

Chapin studied the way families grow and communities function in search of ways to balance sociability and privacy, conceptualizing houses and neighborhoods in terms of layers. He designed central common areas that are hubs of activity and distributed private places throughout the home for quiet concentration and reflection. Laundries, workshops, and play areas are used by several families, reducing the cost of appliances and buildings and creating shared experiences—and a lot less lawn mowing. Covered porches overlook the sidewalk, encouraging interaction among neighbors.

Porches look onto shared garden areas to encourage interaction among neighbors at Ross Chapin’s Third Street Cottages. (Photo by Ross Chapin)

Carlson, Swett, Steinbrecher, and Chapin are quick to express their respect for Whidbey’s skilled local builders. They also tip their hats to local artists and artisans able to supply everything needed to fulfill the architect’s vision: live-edge wood, elegant steel structures, fine sculptures, and paintings. They find local government more likely than most to listen to and work with innovations in building techniques and zoning codes.

The people who make it all possible, however, are the islanders who seek a house congruent with its setting, environment, and community. No matter the style, size, or price tag of their dwellings, most islanders seem to appreciate the value of thoughtful innovation and artistic creation.

And maybe that’s what defines a Whidbey Island home.

TOM TRIMBATH is an author, nature photographer, and a project consultant. He has written and self-published six non-fiction titles, and produced five photo books of Whidbey Island. He also has managed several social media campaigns for authors, artists, and non-profits.

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