Using a design/build approach based on economies of scale, this architect couple created three townhouse units in Seattle, one of which they’ve kept as a family home. Text Joe Malboeuf. Photography Rafael Soldi.
According to a 2015 US Census Bureau report, Seattle just lost its status as the fastest-growing city in the United States. My wife, Tiffany Bowie, and I looked all over the city for a place to live, but, as architects, there was no way we could live in someone else’s design. And although an urban infill lot was hard to find, after a year of looking we found a vacant lot in the active Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Seattle, close to infrastructure and amenities.
The tree-lined street has a mix of Victorian houses and multi-family buildings from the 1990s. The lot slopes gently from the street to the alley side and is a skinny 8.5 metres in width; this, with setbacks, allowed for a 5.4-metre-wide building. Our challenge was to create a home for ourselves and make the project financially feasible; to do this, we planned to create three independent townhouse units, keeping one for ourselves.
The target budget was US$200 per square foot (NZ$3070 per square metre) for the construction. In the end, the project was built for US$189 per square foot in design, build, and consent costs.
Tiffany quit her job at a local design firm and set about designing and building the three units. Each has a utilitarian lower floor, an open kitchen/dining/living main floor, and an upper floor with master suite and other bedrooms. The ceilings are 2.7 metres on the main and upper floors, with large windows for maximum natural light. (The windows have a low-e coating to reduce solar heat gain.) All three units have roof decks with vegetated green areas and views over downtown and the Cascade Range.
We live in the rear unit with our young daughter; the other two units sold quickly when they hit the market in August 2013. The front unit has a large amount of glazing and an architectural wood façade feature that engages with the streetscape. The rear unit has lots of glazing, a lower-floor deck, and views from all three floors. Each of the units has a unique layout and stair system. The middle unit is my personal favourite because of its central stair tower with inset glazed sides and a six-metre bamboo plant growing up its core.
Efficiency of construction dictated the overall design. For example, plumbing was stacked on the plans, thereby reducing the amount of piping specified. The need for steel in the structure was minimised. The home is essentially a rectangular box with inset portions in the middle. This simple shape, with very few ins and outs, helped save money on construction.
The structure is clad in natural-stain cedar planks, prefinished black metal panels, and prefinished dark grey cement fibreboard panels. More expensive products are used sparingly to create variation and interest in highly visible parts.
On the interior, we chose to leave the concrete slab exposed on the ground floor, which greatly reduced flooring costs. We splurged on the large windows, which are pine on the interior and aluminium clad on the exterior. The expense has been well worth it, considering what they bring to the structure.
We bought appliances ahead of time at a sale and then stored them until needed. Smaller pieces of Carrara marble, arranged in a herringbone pattern, made splashbacks in the kitchens; thin-cut white quartz served for the counters. A local joiner made the cabinets.
The design/build method can produce cost savings by streamlining the process. ‘There weren’t any conflicts between the builder and the designer,’ says Tiffany. There is an economy of scale, albeit a small one, from building multiple units at the same time: subcontractors mobilise once for the three homes, and identical products can be used in multiple spaces.
The project is certified Built Green 3 Star of King and Snohomish County. This program is less expensive than others and includes some smart building practices, such as on-site sorting of materials for recycling. All three units feature their own vegetated roof, which drains to provide water for planters at the ground level. The drought-tolerant roof landscape requires little upkeep. Our firm, Malboeuf Bowie Architecture, has gone on to explore affordable passive house building in subsequent projects.
Malboeuf Bowie Architecture is a full-service modern architecture firm committed to developing innovative design solutions. We are focused on highly crafted custom residential, and multi-family building design in Seattle and the across the country. Our work is characterized by the efficient use of space, creative use of materials, and strong interior/exterior connections.
Originally published in The Design Guide issue 5, 2015.