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Spring Home Design 2003: Glass Houses
Piece By Piece

Tuned To The Dunes

The Beauty Of Restraint
The Beach House Skinny

Peaceful Coexistence

The Best Of Both Worlds
Cover Story

From straight lines and hard surfaces, a warm elegance emerges

A restrained palette of grays, taupes, pale wood and several shades of darkest green keeps the emphasis on the outdoors and the view. spacer An open room at the end of the hall serves as a guest bedroom thanks to a Murphy bed hidden in a closet. The aboriginal art is from Australia.

The rectilinear lines of the house are repeated in the landscape. A concrete wall defines the front terrace with a croquet court in the foreground.
From Ned Wells' house, perched on a hillside south of Mount Vernon, you can see miles across the Skagit Valley to the salt water beyond. But just try to get a look back up at the house and it disappears into the hillside without a trace. While fooling the eye wasn't the goal, architect Erich Remash played with scale, transparency and not-quite-bisecting planes to create a horizontal house deceptive in its simplicity and surprising in its dimensions. "It's just a bunch of tricks," says Remash. "It's a wall and a house, and you walk through it to see a big view. The magic is in the net effect."

The net effect is one of pared-down elegance, of sophisticated restraint. Wells, longtime owner of Bellevue's famed Wells-Medina Nursery, puts it bluntly: "The money went into the concrete and the glass." These are the two elements that meld the house right into the outdoors. Concrete floors form the slab-on-grade the house is built on. Oversized glass sliders line the home's two long sides, so on a warm summer day the entire house can be opened up to feel like a tent or a beach house.

The greenish-gray, radiant-heated concrete floors don't end at the doorways as expected, but run outside to form terraces along both sides of the house. The ceiling stops short of the glass walls so the exterior cedar soffit can run inside. Some planes layer over others, some terminate just short of touching, others seem to float in space. The shapes are simple and clean, the effect intriguing. The rectilinear nature of it all is visually reinforced by the 12-foot-high, 180-foot-long concrete wall that forms the back of the entry courtyard.
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Huge concrete pots with a finish as mottled as mushrooms lend the relief of the round to all the horizontal lines. The pots are from Buddy Rhodes Studio in San Francisco.
When you drive up the long, winding hill to the house, you see only plantings, for the house lies below street level. Masses of red ornamental grasses, clusters of spiky bronze phormiums and layers of trees and shrubs flank broad steps. Coming down steps from the garage or garden, you walk through a hallway of Oregon Sunset maples, then slabs of wooden sliding doors into a courtyard entry that runs the entire length of the house. From here you have the full view through the one-room-deep house, across the terrace and smooth expanse of lawn, to the acres of sky and the sparkle of water beyond. Enticingly simple, stunningly effective.

Perhaps all this clarity is in part due to budget. Remash explains that because the first bid came in high, he revisited the plans and pulled out all the fluff. When I tell him it is the most masculine house I've ever seen, he politely objects, saying it is merely "the absence of the feminine that makes it masculine." But it seems to me far more than the lack of prints, wallpaper or any other adornment that shouts out a masculine aesthetic. There's the hefty scale of that concrete wall, the restrained palette, the consistency of materials. The bathrooms are all black-and-white tile with concrete counters. The floors are concrete, the walls and laminate off-white, gray or shades of darkest green. Furniture is spare in gray, taupe and beige. All the cabinetry is tinted fiberboard with a texture like Japanese handmade paper.

Against this austerity of line, the four huge round pots in the courtyard appear sumptuously curvaceous, looking more like mushrooms than concrete spheres. The primitive art that Wells collects on his travels stands out against the monochrome walls, the shape and texture of each piece made bold and graphic by the simplicity of setting.
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The house is made nearly transparent by a series of 9-foot-high, cedar-trimmed sliding doors.
Wells asked Remash for a walled courtyard, and this outdoor space is a defining part of the design. A vast stretch of gravel is protected on one side by the concrete wall, on the other by the mostly-glass house. The walkway from garage to front door neatly bisects the space. On one side, pavers make a patio, surrounded by plantings of hosta, white Japanese anemones, nandina, crape myrtle and evergreen magnolia. At first the little patio seemed too exposed within the larger courtyard, so Wells created both privacy and a windbreak by using metal sheet grating as a screen, and lacing it with a white potato vine.

The rest of the walled gravel garden is presided over by the looming presence of the squat pots, 4 feet in diameter, topped with poufs of ornamental grasses. The maples outside the wall have grown up high enough to be seen from inside the courtyard, softening the line of the wall and casting patterns of leafy shade. The hillsides that rise gently at each end of the space are planted in hornbeams, pines and miscanthus.

On the other side of the house, the garden is a flat, rectangular plane, directing the eye to the sweep of western view. Wells wanted to avoid foundation plantings, hence the concrete terrace all along the front of the house. The lawn is perfect for croquet or badminton except when a ball or birdie bounces over the clean edge that falls off to the valley below. A Parrotia persica stops the eye at the edge of the lawn with its spreading branches that turn shades of fiery red and yellow in autumn.

Perhaps it is the western sun slanting in through all the glass that makes the hard-surfaced, linear house seem so warm and inviting. It could be the feeling the house gives of both settling comfortably into its site and of floating above the valley much like the soaring hawks, eagles and ospreys Wells admires from his windows. Perhaps it's the wooden head that presides over the dining room, chosen by Wells because it made him laugh. More likely it is the synthesis of vision between architect and home owner that Wells explains in as simple and direct a fashion as the design of his home. "I told Eric what I wanted and what I liked, and he made what I imagined."

A maple butcher-block counter tops fiberboard cabinets, dividing the dining room from the kitchen. All the rooms are oriented toward the western view across the Skagit Valley to the water.
The garage overlooks the courtyard, entered through oversized sliding doors set into a concrete wall 12 feet high and 180 feet long. (The little seating area on the left is lent privacy by metal sheet grating laced in white-flowering potato vine.)

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer. « PREVIOUS | NEXT »

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