Pacific Northwest | October 12, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineOctober 12, 2003seattletimes.com home
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CONTENTS
COVER STORY
Hood Canal
West Seattle
Lopez Island
Central Seattle
Vashon Island
TASTE
NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY VICTORIA MEDGYESI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
Fall Home Design

A hut of their own: On Hood Canal, a hideaway to please the conscience and the eye
 
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An open 800-square-foot space with lots of view and light — and no phone or TV — translates to peaceful times around the Rais Woodstove, from Current in Seattle. The walls are birch plywood; the railings and bookcase are Eastern maple; all textiles and rugs are woven by artist Rachel Meginnes, the sister of homeowner Ethan Meginnes.
IS THERE ANYONE who doesn't remember the delicious thrill of crawling inside their very own hideout? You know, the kind you made as a kid from little more than a flannel blanket and three kitchen chairs?

Inside that private space, the light was warm, soft and — even if we didn't know the meaning of the word yet — intimate. Without a doubt, it was the perfect place to temporarily escape from whatever one wanted to escape from. It was also the perfect place to receive special friends.

Just as those temporary tents served as a refuge, so did the family cabin. Of course, this was only true as long as the cabin was a tad remote and a bit eccentric, according to writer Ann Cline, who explored such things in "A Hut of One's Own: Life Outside the Circle of Architecture" (MIT Press).

But somewhere along the line, many a simple family "hut" transitioned to a full second home: mega floor plans, top-of-the-line appliances, bathroom suites and — horrors — matched sheets. More tellingly, such non-rural attractions as espresso stands started to multiply faster than blackberries in summer. Extensive development also meant more damage to the land.
 
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To take a kayak trip, all the couple has to do is walk some 500 feet down a footpath from their cabin to the water's edge.
Slowly, the concept of "getting away from it all" began to blur.

Although mega-options were within the reach of Alexandra Loeb and Ethan Meginnes, it was never what they wanted for their 35 pristine acres along Hood Canal. They were prepared to spend significantly, but they wanted to spend in ways that would make minimal impact on the land.

And so they distilled their desires to the essence: They wanted a small, simple structure that would dramatically open up to the view. They wanted to use as many recycled products and eco-friendly systems as county code would allow, but they also wanted terrific design.
 
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Simple space means simple cooking. An antique Wedgwood stove was converted to natural gas and an early-1900s icebox (hidden behind door to their left) is used for food storage. No insulation in the wall behind the icebox provides for natural cooling; in hot weather, the couple brings in an ice block or two. The copper counter flows into two copper sink bowls.
And — yes — they did want the tucked-away romantic quality of a true hut.

Together with Jim Castanes, Ray Freeman III and Scott Lewis of Castanes Architects, as well as a crew from Buchanan General Contractors led by Robert Malmquist, the couple created an 800-square-foot hideaway that delivered on it all.

Of course, designing for (and building on) a site accessible only by a rudimentary logging road is a challenge, especially when the client is committed to keeping the road as "rural" as possible. And so, a little shop was set up in the forest. First, a compact generator was brought to the site. Then tools and construction materials. Important, too, was the arrival of two small trailers. For the 12 months it would take to complete the project, the trailers would be the work-week home of the on-site crew.
 
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One open room means lots of togetherness. The main living space, the kitchen, the sleeping loft (above) and the bathroom (accessed through the sliding door behind the woodstove) are all in view. Making its way up one of the concrete pillars is a galvanized steel stair; a sleeping nook is tucked under it.
Today, Loeb and Meginnes are reaping the rewards of crystal-clear design: an angular steel, glass and cedar "tree box" snuggled into a wooded ravine. The box itself is perched on four concrete pillars that reach 25 feet into the ground and extend up to the loft.

The lifting-up of the structure was critical. Up high meant taking full advantage of the view possibilities. Up high meant rainwater could flow freely under the cabin and out to Puget Sound, thus avoiding the need to install a drainage system. In addition, the pillars would hide the cast-in-place mechanical and utility pipes.

The cabin could have been built closer to the water, but at the client's request it was put 500 feet from shore. As a result, the property's quarter-mile of waterfront remains gloriously untouched.

When it came to security, they turned to a low-tech solution: a galvanized metal "drawbridge" that can be raised when the couple isn't using it as a stairway. Out back, an unobtrusive storage shed was built into the hillside to hold kayaks, a generator and a propane tank.
 
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A steel, concrete and glass "tree box" makes the most of its naturally wooded location — and a spectacular water view that's enjoyed through a 16-foot-tall Mondrian-inspired window. A galvanized metal deck provides "high up" outdoor space. Seen here, the "drawbridge" is down.
Proudly, the couple reports that only one tree was sacrificed to construction.

Inside, all seems so casual it's easy to miss the exacting level of craftsmanship. On the walls, clear-sealed birch plywood panels fixed with stainless-steel finish screws and washers appear in geometric progression, the grain in each panel painstakingly matched to the next. Natural cork floors — some stained a dramatic brown, some left natural — muffle each step.

By intention, the furnishings are simple, the art sparse, the linens organic, the composting toilet "dry," and many of the lights propane.

The truth is, from the beginning Loeb and Meginnes questioned the morality of building any size second home, knowing the inevitable escalating effect on the environment. Given their concerns, they passed on purchasing the property the first time it went on the market.
 
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Ethan Meginnes and Alexandra Loeb enjoy preparing food in their kitchen, where the copper counter flows into two copper sink bowls. At the forward end of the work counter, a panel can be lowered to dining height by a hand-operated screw jack.
But then came the clincher: Another prospective buyer announced his intentions to build an 8,000-plus-square-foot house as close to the water as possible as well as significantly widen (and pave) the logging road that runs through the property.

When that deal fell through, Loeb and Meginnes made their move. If the land had to be "spoiled," at least they were committed to spoiling it in a limited way. "When we're feeling good about ourselves, we point to the things we did right," says Loeb, now on sabbatical from Microsoft. "On the other hand, if we were perfect, we probably would have bought the land and done nothing. That way, the roads would have grown over and the wild critters would spend more time here."

But when all was said and built, they'd struck a balance they could live with.

Although both volunteer for and financially support a number of environmental organizations, Loeb credits Meginnes with holding onto his principles when it came to making the more difficult eco-friendly design decisions. Meginnes, a director of a national cycling team from the Northwest, "has a strong devotion to the environment as well as practical knowledge on construction," Loeb said. "If it were up to me, we probably would have ended up with a larger cabin, and we definitely wouldn't have ended up with a compost toilet."

Compost toilet or no, things are still pretty rural in this part of the woods. To get an espresso, it's a 2½-hour kayak trip. For a deli sandwich, it's a 50-mile bike ride.

Without a doubt, it's a great little hut for getting away from it all.

Victoria Medgyesi writes about houses and the interesting people who live in them. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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