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Originally published May 12, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Page modified May 14, 2012 at 11:00 AM

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Jeb Thornburg designs contemporary Orcas playhouse

The Bainbridge Island architect came up with a dramatic design for a dramatic setting; the land remaining almost entirely untouched by structure.

YOU CAN see how it happened. Who could resist these views, singing their misty siren song from a piece of land hurtling headlong down an Orcas Island mountainside? High and grand, sweeping from the Olympic Mountains to the Canadian Gulf Islands, encompassing Orcas from Eastsound to North Beach. Pretty and rugged, the lemon-yellow afternoon sun kissing water the color of Elizabeth Taylor's eyes.

Not Karen or her husband, for sure.

"We stupidly bought it because of the National Geographic views," she says. "And then we thought, *%&$, what are we going to do with it?"

The answer, oddly enough, lurked in a Spanish columbarium (a mausoleum for ashes of the deceased). Her architects showed her photos. They were boxy. She thought, "That's it! If we can stand the house up and not blow up the mountain . . ."

As she says this we sway ever so slightly, because the house is blowing in the wind. The solution, you see, was to place the building upon two slim concrete fins set into the rocky ground, floating the home over a carpet of moss. The foundation legs support a steel Vierendeel frame allowing the wings of the house to cantilever 28 feet outward in both directions. Within the steel-frame box sits a concrete-paneled box, the home.

Dramatic design for a dramatic setting; the land remaining almost entirely untouched by structure's presence. Walking the 360-degree catwalk outside this hovering, contemporary container, you see no sign of support.

"You really feel like you're on a ship," Karen says. "But it isn't about the house even. It's about a frame for nature."

And for that there are tall glass walls, clerestories and cutouts.

"It's a treehouse," Karen says. "That's often what we call it."

It is also a playhouse, and, really, it is Karen's house.

"Our house on Bainbridge (Island) is a stucco French farmhouse. My husband loves old, classic homes; I love contemporary."

At his, he gardens five acres. At hers, Karen will have none of it. "There is no gardening up here. I've got two tomboys and a boy (4, 7 and 10) and there is no TV, no Internet here. I want the kids running around. We crank country music, Mom drinks wine, and we dance all night. There's no fighting over DSL lines. My daughter will sit and count how many swallows fly by. There's always something flying by."

The family came to the island half a dozen years ago in search of farmland. (Family members include dogs, horses, cats.) But the view stole their hearts and changed their minds.

To make her dream a reality, Karen, a devoted Bainbridge islander, hired locally. Bainbridge architect, Bainbridge builder, Bainbridge metal artist, Bainbridge interior designer. Jeb Thornburg and Michael Wangen of Indigo took up the mountainside design challenge; Rachele Turnbull of Clark Construction took charge of building it; Steve Humphrey of 47 West crafted the metal work; Michelle Burgess of Michelle Burgess Design helped with furnishings. And last, but most certainly not least, Swenson Say Fagét, of Seattle, worked out the structural engineering. The result, finished in April 2011, is 2,400 square feet (two bedrooms, three baths, two lofts) of darned-near maintenance-free family fun.

Karen steps into the bunk room. Beds, on each side of the room, are stacked three high. "This is where we shove the kids, plus one friend per child.

"This is a place for people to reconnect. And I'm just thrilled the kids get it. They get what it's all about."

Rebecca Teagarden writes about architecture and design for Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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