|Your account||Today's news index||Weather||Traffic||Movies||Restaurants||Today's events|
Sunday, February 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Dream homes: a window into how we've changed
By Elizabeth Rhodes
Fifty years ago, a dream home couldn't have been more different. The North Seattle house Gene Zema designed for his family in 1954 sufficed with a carport, an unfinished recreation room and a more straightforward ratio of three bedrooms and two baths.
So why has the look of the architecturally designed home changed so dramatically in five decades? In part, because the way we live has changed inspiring home-theater rooms, high-tech offices and supersized kitchens.
But more than that, the changes reflect homeowners' intense quest to express their individuality indeed, it's seen almost as a birthright combined with their growing affluence. Today, their dreams are unrestricted by most traditional notions of what a house ought to be provided they have the vision, the money and the architect.
Explained University of Illinois research architect William Rose: "Architects don't work in convention. They work when convention is broken."
Over the past half-century, such custom-designed domestic visions have been featured in The Seattle Times through a partnership between the paper and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Roughly every month, the AIA has opened up one home to the public to inspire architectural conversation and Wu's open house did just that.
A North Seattle castle, complete with throne
Wu, whose $2 million-plus North Seattle home on the Lake Washington waterfront attracted hundreds of visitors at a January open house, had a clear vision of what she wanted: large volumes of open space and few rooms.
"Because I'm a single woman and I have experience with real estate for 30-some-odd years and I've looked at the Street of Dreams, my feeling is most of the time people have too many rooms and they don't go into them," she said. "So I created spaces with multiple uses so I won't waste any space."
So her soaking tub is also a whirlpool bath. Her shower is also a steam room, and her pride and joy the heated toilet with a waterfront view is also a bidet. "If you ask me what's the best thing I have in my house, it's my toilet," she said. "I love my toilet. It's so comfortable."
Plenty of people dream of a custom home, and plenty, too, shake their heads at such high-end, unconventional design. But Wu's wowed many who toured it. "It was beautiful," enthused Joyce McKinnon of Holmes Point. She and her husband, Ed, visit architect-designed open houses to see the newest ideas. They agreed that Wu's demonstrated that architects are in the forefront of innovation.
"This is more great room, not so formalized, more multiuse," said Joyce, adding, "We have an architect-designed house, and we're glad because we could personalize it."
That's typical of custom-house clients, said Seattle architect David Fukui. "(They) have money, they have taste, they know what professionals do, and they want something beyond what they can just buy going into the classifieds on Sunday."
That's exactly why Wu shared her vision with architect W. Carlton Lambert.
Northwest style: An environmental connection
When these houses were first built here, they were relatively modest in size. Building codes, plus the economy and availability of natural materials, allowed architects to design houses with large amounts of glass and wood. Clean-lined and unpretentious, the best of them were and still are Volvos rather than Cadillacs.
Today, natural materials are more expensive, and architects are using wood more as trim, which they may well team with concrete for another take on an organic look.
Bill Gates' home on Lake Washington, completed in 1997, is a Northwest-style natural. Huge windows let in light. The terraced floor plan steps back into the hillside, giving many rooms lake views. Materials run to the natural: stone, concrete and timber, including huge, recycled wood beams.
What's important about custom houses whether they're for billionaires or not is "they're designed for a particular client," explained Dave Miller, a partner in the Seattle architecture firm of Miller/Hull. "They experiment a little more and are willing to try different things."
Trickle-down design for the masses
"I don't think it's the architects who create trends. It's the buyers who go to the architects for custom homes and say, 'This is what I want,' " said Suzanne Britsch, president of Real Vision Research, a Mill Creek market-research firm. About 10 years ago, for example, aging baby boomers started to ask for ground-floor master suites they didn't want to deal with stairs.
As cooking became more social and more on-the-run, open-plan kitchens accommodated both extremes. And technological advances made it possible for people to work and play at home in more sophisticated ways. Workout rooms, big closets and huge garages became more common in new developments.
Change flows from research, technology
But new design concepts can come from practically anywhere:
Kitchen islands: In the late 1950s or early '60s, the National Association of Home Builders promoted changes in plumbing trap-arm regulations that made it possible to vent a sink that wasn't against a wall. Thus, said research architect Rose, came the solution to, "How do you do an island sink and not have it stink up with sewer gas?"
The kitchen work triangle: Research by University of Illinois home economist Helen McCullough in the early 1950s showed that cooks were taking too many time-wasting steps between the sink, range and refrigerator. So today's builders employ the "work-triangle" concept to ensure the three essentials aren't too far apart.
PVC: In 1926, fresh out of the University of Washington with a Ph.D. in chemistry, Waldo Semon invented polyvinyl chloride PVC that's now used in everything from door frames to plumbing fittings, roofing tiles and, most importantly, electrical wire insulation. The use of PVC showed up incrementally and affected houses' safety, durability and cost-efficiency.
A growing design divide
In the 1950s, homes designed by local architects weren't that different from high-end production homes, said architect Jeffrey Ochsner, a UW architecture-history professor. Now, the work of architects and builders "is fairly far apart. There's a lot more variety in what architects are doing today."
That makes it difficult to pigeonhole custom architecture stylistically. "The trend is going both ways to bigger houses and to smaller houses," said Britsch. They're just as likely to be flat-roofed stucco à la Southern California as they are woodsy Northwest contemporary.
Local architects say the typical custom home is 2,500 to 5,000 square feet and costs $200 to $400 a square foot to build. So a mid-range home would cost just over $1 million, plus land costs. By comparison, the cost of a quality home in a new development is more like $100 to $150 a square foot, plus land costs.
But for Wu, cost was not the issue. Design was the thing: a home that worked for her single but highly social lifestyle, a place where more than 100 guests can comfortably talk, watch TV, sing karaoke, enjoy her art collection and see the meal being prepared. "I like the open feeling of peace and communication with my guests; it's more to my lifestyle," said a satisfied Wu. "It's a peacefully friendly space I created."
Elizabeth Rhodes: email@example.com
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company
Back to top