Squatting on two and a half acres of lush Woodway forest is a pinup star in the Seattle design community. Last November, local architects jealously patted the backs of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson principal Robert Miller and fellow plotter Amy Williams at Seattle’s American Institute of Architects ceremony, where the sprawling 5,500-square-foot 1950s remodel garnered the firm the AIA Honor Award. But the homeowner and his wife and two young kids barely seem aware of the house’s prestige among the city’s T-square brigade.

The family relishes the design, sure, the high ceiling, the floor-to-ceiling windows that greedily suck in daylight. A runway constructed from ipe wood decking cuts through the center of the home, the geometric shapes of which are framed by teak, Douglas fir and black steel. Aside from its only substantial ornamentation—two red rectangular boxes flanking the exterior like thrusters on a spacecraft—the structure epitomizes minimalism, with the kind of naked walls that make the children of wainscoting contractors go hungry.

But what really matters to this family is that BCJ transformed what was once a confusing, labyrinthine floor plan that cut them off from each other (the master bedroom and kids’ rooms were on opposite sides of the house) into a space that facilitates constant connections between family members—something they’d sought for years.

The homeowners lived in Ballard back in the ’90s and used to climb onto a motorcycle for scenic rides north—shooting straight up Aurora past car lots and burger chains, leaning toward Puget Sound, and S-curving through Woodway, a hilly, evergreen-filled community between Richmond Beach and Edmonds. Woodway is the fifth-wealthiest neighborhood in the state; its dense maples and Western red cedars wrap mansions in a leafy sound-absorbing gauze. The couple on the back of the bike liked the quiet (indeed Woodway’s real-estate-marketing sobriquet is “The Quiet Place”; the community newsletter, The Woodway Whisper). And they preferred the open space and privacy over Ballard’s tight bungalow-to-bungalow squeeze.

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They found this house, a one-story postwar affair. Built in 1950, the building was always modern in form—unadorned, angular—but it was also moody and uninviting (guests sometimes had trouble finding the front door) and was, in the words of one architect, “a dark hunkering block.”

Spatial sanity was achieved via a runway of ipe decking that divides private rooms from shared spaces.

In the lore passed down from homeowner to homeowner—our guy’s the third—the original family, back in the early ’50s, was led by an overworked patriarch who charged through the door each weeknight and honey-I’m-homed his way back to his personal bar in the den, where the workday dissolved to the clink of slowly melting ice in a tumbler.

Not a man likely bothered that that den and the master bedroom were at the opposite end of the building from the rest of the bedrooms; or that a closet area at the entryway had to be circumnavigated in order to reach other areas of the home. A series of remodels over the decades created an even more foreboding tangle of hallways and walls. By 2000, when the current owners moved in, the home had become a confounding maze. When their toddler son was old enough to walk he would awake at night, lost in the dark, calling out for help—one evening stuck in a refrain of “find mommy, find mommy.” Time for a remodel and a visit from architect Robert Miller, a preternaturally calm man with a penchant for pastel dress shirts.

In 2003, Miller sat with the family at the dining room table to sketch ideas. When the owners’ son began playing near the architect’s feet, and their daughter began sketching, too, Miller had a revelation. “You could tell it was a very close-knit family. They wanted to be connected.” 

Floor-to-ceiling windows allow the outdoors in.

Months of poring over plans and nearly two years of construction later, the home is dramatically different. “Our entry sequence changed so you entered the building, and you saw through the building to the large red door at the opposite end,” Miller explained. No more maze. He raised the ceiling, bringing more light into the sunken living room. Windows in place of walls make the room seem as though it extends into the verdant yard, while dense foliage and a security gate with intercom ensure the fame-shy family doesn’t feel like it’s in a fishbowl for all the world to peep.


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Miller flanked the home with two giant bright red boxes, lending it symmetry as well as storage space.

Miller and Williams’s plan also bestowed the house with its most memorable features, two scarlet rectangular boxes at each end that serve as storage areas, and says Miller, “are datum points within the plan.” Meaning: The boxes anchor the design and dictate the flow. But the element that spun the AIA jurors’ citation into an adverb-abusing fit about how BCJ made the place “programmatically and spatially better” is the central ipe-bedecked hallway that divides the public and private spaces: Entertainment room, living room, kitchen on one side of the spine; kids’ rooms and master bedroom on the other.

Today, piles of CDs and books create their own datum points. A couple guinea pigs squeal from a cage in a corner; recent chalkboard drawings in another corner make for a sort of Lascaux for kids. Outside a dog of uncertain breed patrols the grounds with a traffic cone chew toy hanging over his jowls. All reveal the project for what it’s always been, indeed what those motorcycle rides a decade ago in search of the perfect dwelling were about—something more important than privacy or wrestling with celebrity.

On a recent Friday afternoon, sloshing through wet grass in rain, the homeowner nodded with pride toward a garage-door window his son accidentally smashed with a baseball, which steered the conversation back toward the original homeowner, the 1950s patriarch who couldn’t loosen his Windsor knot fast enough for his appointment with the bar in his isolated den after work. “Who was that guy? My dad had a little bit of that in him, but he always wanted to spend time with us.”

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.