Houzz Tour: Island Home Works with the Forces of Nature

A shoreline house captures views of Puget Sound while negotiating a difficult site
Posted September 02, 2016

This article originally appeared on Houzz.com.

Architect Dan Nelson faced potentially daunting challenges in designing this waterfront home on Camano Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. The lot sits beneath a steep hillside, and the home had to be designed to withstand surface mudslides. The buildable area was limited, constrained by the hill and the shoreline bulkhead of Saratoga Passage. Even tiny eggs played a role: The spawning schedule of surf smelt affected the construction schedule.

To address these site concerns and others, Nelson and his team used the principles of resilient design. “With resilient design, architecture comes out of the requirements of designing for environmental situations,” he says. “We take it a step further than what is typically required.”

And though engineering, environmental and ecological issues shaped the home’s design, so did the homeowners’ desires. The owners appreciate modern aesthetics, and they wanted to make the most of their panoramic water and island views. These requirements shaped a stunning home that can stand up to almost anything nature throws at it.

Houzz at a Glance
Who lives here: A couple who split their time between this home and a Seattle condo
Location: Camano Island, Washington
Size: 1,900 square feet (176.5 square meters); two bedrooms plus an office, 2½ bathrooms

After their kids left home, the couple decided to sell their large Seattle-area home, buy a modest condo in the city and build a home on Camano Island. They both still work and divide their time between the two, depending on where they need to be.

One of the homeowners spent summers on this family property when he was growing up. In fact, most of the homeowners along this shore are related to one another; the property has been in the family for three generations.

Saratoga Hill House, View towards beach.

Because mud and other debris has sloughed off the hill in the past and likely will in the future, the architects conducted a feasibility study to determine the parameters for the project. “The Department of Public Works in Island County was worried about potential slough-offs, and we had to prove that if a mudslide should happen, the house would not be impacted,” Nelson says.

They hired a geotechnical engineer, whose first recommendation was a large retaining wall to protect the home from the impact of slides down the hill. In addition to being a costly solution, it was also next to impossible to build, as there was no access for cement trucks to reach the site. (There is no vehicle access. Residents park at a common parking lot at one end of the beach and walk about a quarter of a mile to their homes.)

Related: Collaborate with an Architect like Dan Nelson

With the retaining wall idea out, Nelson had to come up with something else. “Well, I had just finished the Tsunami House,” he says. The Tsunami House is a resilient home he and his team designed on Camano Island, where building codes required 5-foot piers that would allow floodwaters and strong lateral waves to flow underneath the house. Nelson made the piers 9 feet high to create standing room beneath the home’s main floor.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t what we did for water over there [in the Tsunami House] work for soil and debris over here?’” he says.

Raising this house up on a steel frame would allow any potential mud or debris slides to run under the house. The geotechnical engineer signed off on the strategy, agreeing that as long as the house could withstand slough-offs of mud and debris up to 6 feet high, it would keep inhabitants safe. “We got the living areas up off the ground, and the expression of the steel frame became part of the architectural aesthetics,” Nelson says.

Galvalume siding: AEP Span

With the potential slough-off challenge met, the team focused on the site’s narrow constraints, determined by the hillside on the east side and the setback from the bulkhead at the edge of the water on the west side. The Department of Ecology issued shoreline permit variances, but the team was still limited by the required distances from bulkhead and the hillside.

While the possibility of soil and debris sloughing off the hill shaped the steel-framed structure and raised elevation, the constraints of the hill and the setbacks from the shore shaped the dimensions of the home, which is wide, high and shallow. “The house was squeezed from the east and the west. Making it a vertical house was pragmatic,” Nelson says.

Furthermore, the dramatic cantilevered form on the north side of the house follows the septic drain field’s function below. There is a long roof deck atop the cantilevered portion, which gives the homeowners gardening space, and there’s a smaller roof deck between the study and the guest bedroom.

Saratoga Hill House, View from bulkhead.

To add to the challenges, the contractors had to gain permission from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to drive any equipment down the beach. The beach is considered a critical habitat for surf smelt spawning. They not only had to time construction around the spawning but also had to have a biologist monitor the beach for eggs once a week. It was imperative to protect this significant component of the region’s ecosystem.

Once the beach was cleared by the biologist, there were still plenty of challenges. To get the concrete for the footings to the site, they mixed it in the parking area, drove batches of it down the beach in an off-road forklift, then used a homemade wood chute to pour it. The steel structure was brought to the beach in pieces and then welded on site.

There is no livable space at ground level, but they were able to place the furnace and hot water heater down here. The units are housed in the concrete block structure, which is reinforced with rebar that can resist the forces of a slough-off. The stairs to the home’s main level are concrete.

Saratoga Hill House, Detail of steel frame and entry stairs.

The main level contains the home’s public spaces, as well as the master suite. The top level has a guest suite, loft lounge and study, as well as two roof decks. “The house has a really simple floor plan,” Nelson says.

While the ground level was designed around potential slides, the upper floors were designed around the views across Saratoga Passage to Whidbey Island. After ascending the stairs, one turns to open the door into the house. This directs your view upon entering straight out the sliding glass doors to the water. The public areas on the main floor are one large open space. The west, Whidbey-facing side of the house is almost all glass, providing the homeowners with gorgeous views, particularly at sunset.

Windows and doors: Anderson

The corner window lets the view wrap around the south side of the house. A wood stove warms the space on chilly days.

Wood stove: Rais

Saratoga Hill House, View from kitchen looking out to Saratoga Passage.

The kitchen is minimalist and white, with wood cabinetry. The sapele wood of the cabinets complements the natural surroundings, while the quartz countertops reflect the light. Note the open space under the countertop that keeps a floor-to-ceiling view there.

The master bedroom is located on the main floor in the cantilevered portion of the house. There’s a sliding door between the bedroom and the master bathroom. The glass piece is by local artist Dan Bergsma.

Related: Kitchen Countertops 101: Choosing a Surface Material

Bathers enjoy views from the corner windows.

Saratoga Hill House, Master bedroom.

While the west side of the house provides wide-open views, the east side has few windows because it is so close to the hillside. They did add windows where they could make it interesting, like on this corner.

The steel-wrapped staircase and its steel cable railing continue the vocabulary of the exterior architecture indoors.

On the top floor, the study has direct access to the roof deck. The deck has pavers placed atop plastic pedestals with drip lines underneath for irrigation. There are tray insert planting beds around the perimeter.

One of the homeowners is in the nursery business, and Nelson says her roof deck garden has come a long way in the short amount of time since these photos were taken. The homeowner also has started a fern garden beneath the cantilevered portion of the house.

Saratoga Hill House, Third level garden deck looking out to Saratoga Passage.

The roof deck is one of the best spots for enjoying the dazzling sunsets.

Nelson notes that resilient design is the wave of the future. “Typically when we talk about sustainable design, the focus is on energy consumption, but the concept of resilient design focuses on longevity and durability,” he says. Durability translates to low-maintenance homes that don’t require lots of upkeep, that last and can take a beating.

Related: Add Safety and Style to your Staircase

“It is the next concept of sustainable design. When a home can withstand the forces of nature — rising tides, earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes — the fact that it is less susceptible to damage is more sustainable,” he says.

Principal architect: Dan Nelson, Designs Northwest Architects
Project architect: Matt Radach, Designs Northwest Architects
Interior design: H2K Design
Structural Engineering: Nickerson Engineering
Geotechnical engineer: Marc McGinnis
Contractor: Waite Construction