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Originally published Friday, March 8, 2013 at 12:00 PM

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To cook, quilt and collect, Whidbey home has space for it all

The home is a result of collaboration between island contractor Ed Gemkow, Langley architect Todd Soli and the homeowners.

Special to The Seattle Times

"IF I'D DONE more residential work in my career, I might have taken on the house myself," says Liz Axford, a retired commercial architect. She and her husband, Pat Johnson, recently moved cross-country from Houston to Whidbey Island. After searching the length and breadth of the island for a house, they gave up, settled on a piece of view property and hired South Whidbey contractor Ed Gemkow. Gemkow recommended Langley architect Todd Soli, and a creative collaboration was born.

The couple had clear ideas about what they wanted in their new home. Plenty of room on the walls to display Axford's art quilts, and a studio space for her to design, cut and sew them. Johnson needed a study large enough to house his extensive music collection. Axford is a serious cook, so a beautiful, functional kitchen was high on the list. They needed a guest room and wanted small, efficient bathrooms like the ones they'd admired on a trip to Scandinavia. They also wanted to see all these elements packaged in a modern design with a metal roof.

Then there was the matter of light deprivation. The couple didn't miss Texas weather. "It was perverse in Houston not to be able to go outside during the warm six months of the year; it feels so good to be able to go outside anytime here," Axford says. Still, they hoped to draw as much light into the house as possible.

Then Johnson got an offer he couldn't refuse and decided to put off retirement longer than originally intended. So design and construction happened while Axford and Johnson remained in Texas. Axford traveled to Whidbey once a month to check on progress, yet it was clear to this experienced architect that she needed to assemble a team that worked well together. Luckily, Whidbey Island is rich in craftsmen; Soli and Gemkow brought in metal-worker Tim Leonard to create the steel fireplace surround, and Dick Kieffer to build the hemlock kitchen cabinets. The collaboration was rewarded when Gemkow Construction was awarded the Skagit/Island Counties Builders Association Award for Best Overall Project of the Year.

But there were challenges along the way. The sloping site required drainage solutions and a unique construction footprint. The clients were far away in Texas. And it turns out, the design review board in the community didn't like metal roofs. Soli solved these issues with good communication, innovative design and by slanting the roof away from the uphill neighbors and choosing a muted bronze color for the metal.

Soli maximized views by splitting the house into two wings, set at a 45-degree angle on the pie-shaped lot. Every room ended up with a water view except the mud room and bathrooms. At 3,000 square feet, the scale of the place is "comfortable, big enough, but not too big," Axford says. The living room faces southwest for full-on water and mountain views. The dining room is a window-lined pop-out that shares views with the living room, scoops light into the house and glows like a lantern after dark.

When it came to the garden, the couple's goal was clear. "We wanted something simple," says Axford. "Simpler than it turned out," chimes in Johnson. Plants grow more luxuriantly here in the Northwest than in Texas. Landscape architect Ken Philp was tasked with creating a low-maintenance landscape. He planted the third-of-an-acre property with mostly Northwest natives. Overlapping swathes of colorful, textural foliage plants lend easy-care interest in all seasons. Big, concave dish rocks act as focal points and birdbaths.

The couple, who moved to the island permanently last May, have nearly made it through their first Northwest winter. The verdict? Todd Soli "has a great gut instinct ... he made it all work," says Axford; a fine compliment coming from a fellow architect.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

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