When Sam Lai told me he met his wife while they were UW theater students, I suddenly got it. The way the facade of their house, an enormous cedar-slat wall, tilts upward, garage-door style, but has the effect of a stage curtain—exposing the entire main living area: deck in front, then sitting and dining spaces, and kitchen at the back. The way LEDs wash the house in the colors of set lighting gels—violet, vermilion, electric blue. Now I see that the old-fashioned upright piano (which frankly clashes with the stark concrete floors, the gas-jet fireplace) is not meant to match; it’s here in case someone decides to put on a show. The house may be 5 Star Built Green certified, and it may be (in a neighborhood of old bungalows) an ultramodern statement; but above all it is adaptable, kinetic, made to be played in—and played with.
“The first things Sam talked about were not: I need to have three bedrooms and a great room,” says Mark Haizlip, of mavericky Seattle architecture firm Pb Elemental. “He talked about the project having drama.” Sam bought the narrow Queen Anne infill lot two years ago, planning to construct a home for himself, his wife Angie—a novelist and playwright—and their now two-year-old son Manny. (Twin daughters Elena and Gloria were born in July.) A real-estate appraiser and developer, Sam had already purchased six houses around Seattle, spiffing them up then selling them or renting them out. “Working on these construction rehab projects, I always wished I could start from scratch,” says Sam. “Do something more dynamic and push the limits in terms of efficiency.” The couple often hosts parties and intimate readings with theater friends, so he also wanted to create an open floor plan downstairs that would double as an event venue.
To find the architects to build it, he didn’t have to look far. The Lai property is just one street over from Queen Anne Avenue, address of Pb Elemental’s Sterling Residence, a boxy, cream-colored structure that the firm erected backwards: The windowless rear wall faces the street, the main entrance is hidden around back. To say the Sterling Residence pushes boundaries is an understatement. “My father calls it an abortion clinic,” one neighbor told The Stranger last March. But Dave Biddle, a Pb Elemental cofounder, is quick to remind me that Sterling was honored by the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects for its cutting-edge and sustainable design; he largely dismisses neighbors’ criticism. “I think deep down they realize we’re doing a better service to their homes by not just pretending that the house was built 100 years ago,” says Biddle.
Instead, he says, his firm seeks the most efficient, functional materials for a given job, then designs a structure to honestly reflect their attributes. You’ll never find a piece of crown molding in a Pb Elemental house, in other words, but you may see a rough edge where a slab of cement was cut. The firm calls the Lai house PC1—Polycarbonate One—a reference to the translucent plastic that lines the south-facing wall. A tough, ribbed synthetic, polycarbonate is 100 percent recyclable, inexpensive, insulating, and lets in UV-filtered sunlight—cutting down on energy usage. It’s an unusual choice for a private residence, but, provided your taste leans toward seams-on-the-outside modern, it has a certain industrial charm—particularly when you look through it and see the silhouette of clouds or a gull gliding by. When Haizlip and Biddle asked Sam if he’d consider the plastic, he embraced the idea.
Then Sam took things one step further. If they used two sheets of polycarbonate instead of one, he reasoned, he could install LED fixtures in the cavity between them, and, in the evenings, set the place aglow. Today, using Web-enabled touch screens installed at points throughout the house, he and Angie change the lighting scheme at their whim. The smart system also allows them to control house-wide surround sound. (On the quiet rainy morning of my first visit to the Lais’, the lights were a soothing indigo and Iron and Wine played quietly.) If they’re having a party, the Lais set their LEDs to a scarlet red, imbuing PC1 with the dramatic, high-design look of an LA nightclub.
Together, Haizlip, Biddle, and Lai came up with the floor plan, closing off only one space downstairs: a media room in the back, sound-proofed with cork walls, where the family stores the typical electronica along with crates full of plastic toys. From the catwalk-style upstairs hallway, Sam and Angie check up on Manny at play below. From downstairs, they hear the twins waking from their nap in the glass-walled nook attached to the master bedroom. When the twins are old enough to sleep in one of the bedrooms in the rear, this space—which feels private but offers a clear view of the home’s main circulation corridor—will become Angie’s office.
Outside, Sam constructed a fence from black bamboo sticks cleared from the property before the build; the cabinets in the kitchen are also bamboo. By spring he hopes to power his toaster and coffeemaker with energy harnessed from solar panels on the roof. But the environmental pièce de résistance is buried below the deck: a 4,000 ton cistern that collects rainwater, which the Lais use for laundry, toilets, and outdoor faucets. Conserving water was the top goal, says Sam, but he also had a friend install lights underneath the porch’s cedar slats so the outline of the cistern is visible from above, arousing guests’ curiosity. “It’s a reminder of how we use resources,” he says. He mentions a small sign out front above the hose bib that reads “Rainwater, do not drink.” “The plumbing inspector required it,” he says, “but what’s so cool about that little placard is that it fosters all kinds of conversation when people walk by and say ‘What does that mean? How are you using rainwater?’”
Not all neighbors are benignly curious, however. A few months back, before the retractable front door had been installed, a man walking by on the sidewalk stopped in front of PC1. From the street where he stood, he could look all the way back and see Sam in the kitchen. He smiled. Sam smiled back, waved. “Really, what does he want?” says Haizlip. “You can’t get any more neighborly than this.” Then the guy made a fist and extended his thumb toward the sidewalk. Thumbs down.
Passersby often ask the Lais if the building is an office or condo building, even as they see the family sitting at the dining table, or Manny driving his Tonka trucks out front while Angie comes in and out with a stroller in hand and a BabyBjörn strapped to her chest. The truth about PC1 is, some people just don’t get it.
In the end though, when a home is built to push boundaries, the occasional thumbs down just might be a sign that it’s succeeding. “When I think about a project,” says Biddle, “of course I want everyone to love it. But that’s unrealistic. Ultimately the house is for Sam and his family. It explains the lifestyle they want. That’s where you have to leave it.”