Architect couple keep it simple in La Conner
Attention to detail and creative solutions make Ken and Susan Olsen’s house on the bay work for now, and later, too.
Pacific NW associate editor
“HI! COME this way!”
That’s what it seems to say, the egg-yolk-yellow door in the courtyard of this otherwise well-mannered Cape Codish kind of place, powder gray with white trim.
Not only is the front door loud, it’s tall, 8 feet tall. And when it opens there is homeowner Ken Olsen, who stands 6-feet-8 himself.
“It has to have a specific site condition for it to work,” he says of a home’s design. “So much of it is simple, straightforward architecture,” he says of this one.
Yep, Ken Olsen is an architect. So is his wife, Susan. (Olsen Associates | Architecture + Planning) The Olsens have lived where the architecture jobs led them. From Fremont to Bainbridge Island to here on the western side of La Conner in a community called Shelter Bay. The Olsens love La Conner’s natural beauty, for years stopping by on trips aboard their boat. Dropping anchor, they have also discovered its deep roots in art and agriculture.
“We’re both really interested in how people live in cities and how people live in communities,” says Susan. “We can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Capturing that feeling of community and how it fits in with the people and the landscape,” says Ken. “Like Madison Park. You walk around there and you know where you are, it’s palpable. That feel you’re part of a neighborhood that’s part of a larger whole.”
That’s how the conversation goes in this house of architects. However did they settle on a place for themselves?
“We were at lunch one day at Piatti’s in U Village,” Susan says. “They had white paper for tablecloths with crayons, and we started drawing the house.”
“We still have that tablecloth,” says Ken.
“We were piling it on, everything we wanted, like most people do,” Susan says. “Then we went back to it. We had to make choices.”
And then Ken reveals the real secret: “We took turns being the client.”
The Olsens created for themselves a contemporary-Danish-Cape Cod, three styles of design they admire (2,200 square feet, two bedrooms, two baths). The home, built by Steve Swigert in La Conner, sits by the bay, the Olsens’ boat out back bobbing to the tide. Because homes here are close together, the roof is gently sloped in consideration of the views of others. Allowable height is 15 feet, so the Olsens dug down to open rooms to the roof as much as possible. Each room has a relationship with either the water out back or the courtyard out front.
Cost was a consideration, too. The Olsens brought their project in at less than $150 per square foot with a simple structure based on a box. Rooms are “same box, different use,” Ken says. (The kitchen-dining room, for instance, is the living-room box turned sideways.) Windows (trimless) are Pella. Cabinets are maple (Canyon Creek in Monroe). The kitchen counters are black pebbled laminate. Floors are concrete. The studio hallway is lined with built-in bookshelves. Shutters at the windows are a nod to the couple’s East Coast roots. The furniture? “Thank God for Ikea,” says Susan.
Even the outdoors got the architects’ critical eye(s). “We made a conscious decision to use fine pea gravel because it sounds good and it slows you down. It’s like a beach.”
“This level of detail is vital,” says Susan.
Their conversation continues.
Rebecca Teagarden writes about architecture and design for Pacific NW magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.