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The exterior of a house. The house has a wooden facade with windows. There are various assorted shrubbery and plants in front of the house.

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Inside a net-zero ‘cabin in the city’ by Olson Kundig

The Seattle homeowner and architect Jim Olson build on a five-decade long friendship

Architect Jim Olson, founding partner at Seattle architecture firm Olson Kundig, is best known for the large, elegant houses he designs for art collectors around the world. But Olson knows small can be beautiful, too.

“For myself, I prefer houses at this scale,” he says. His own cabin in Longbranch, Washington, overlooking the Puget Sound, is the most famous example of Olson’s way with small houses.

The “cabin in the city” he designed for Melissa Haumerson, on a small lot in a densely populated Seattle neighborhood, also offers a model of compact city living. (Both of these houses are included in Olson’s latest book, Jim Olson: Buildings Nature Art.)

The exterior of a house. The house is made of wood and there are bushes and shrubbery in the foreground.
The house’s exterior is clad in recycled fir, which will weather naturally.

Granted, this is no “tiny house.” Measuring 1,800 square feet (not including the garage), it includes a central living-dining-kitchen area with sixteen-foot-high ceilings, a bedroom and bath on either side of this space, and pantry and laundry areas. (The separation of the bedrooms allows privacy, and also makes the plan a good template for aging-in-place design.)

And it’s got serious sustainable design cred, too, including a photovoltaic array, green roof, air-to-water heat pump, radiant-heated concrete floors, and triple-paned windows that help make it a net-zero structure. The just-big-enough backyard, designed by Brandon Peterson to include trees and low-water plants and grasses, carries this eco-conscious theme outdoors.

A living area. There is a brown couch with multiple pillows. There is a wooden desk with chairs. There are shelves built into one of the walls that hold various objects. The other wall is floor to ceiling windows overlooking trees and shrubbery.
The central, sixteen-foot-high living-dining-kitchen space has south-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the garden.

Haumerson—who, among other philanthropic efforts, buys land and donates it to conservation groups—was adamant that the house be sustainable, and Olson enthusiastically agreed, adding that “it shows people what you could do using a small lot.”

Olson and Haumerson share a long history; they met more than five decades ago, when both their families had summer houses at Longbranch, and have been friends ever since. Olson eventually remodeled what had been his parents’ house there for Haumerson’s mother—“Jim had perfect ideas,” Haumerson says—and she now owns it herself.

The exterior of a house. There are windows that look into the house and out into the back garden. The house is made of wood.
The house offers a view through the main living area to the back garden.
Two people, a man and woman, stand outside. There is a tall wooden fence behind them and there are plants to the side of the outdoor area where they are standing.
Architect Jim Olson and his client, Melissa Haumerson, in the garden of her Seattle home.
A wooden totem pole in a garden full of lush green trees and shrubbery.
The totem pole in the garden was made by Andy Wilbur, a member of the Skokomish Indian Tribe.
The exterior of a house. There are floor to ceiling windows that look into a living area which has tall bookshelves full of books.
Next to the master bedroom, a corner of the living area offers a view of the room’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Since she is often at Longbranch on weekends, as are Olson and his wife, Katherine, there were many discussions there about what Haumerson’s house should be. And in spite of their long friendship, there were definite differences of opinion between architect and client.

“I told Jim I didn’t want a gray house,” Haumerson says, referring to Olson’s well-known preference for cooler-toned woods and finishes. “I wanted warmer tones. I said I had to have a place for my books and Northwest Indian art, which I’ve collected since the 1970s. And I just wanted a bedroom and a guest room.”

Olson cheerfully acknowledges the aesthetic differences they had. “Melissa told me at the beginning that she wanted warmer colors, and concrete floors, but ‘not that awful gray’ concrete that I have. So I told her to go to the beach and find a rock. She found a beautiful terracotta-colored rock, which the contractors matched for the floors and the exterior concrete walls.” The main room’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves organize Haumerson’s books, vinyl records, and Native American art.

A living area. The walls are made of wood and there are bookshelves on one side of the room with a ladder. There is a large couch and multiple works of ornamental art hanging on the wall. The windows overlook a yard with many plants.
A view through the living area to the master bedroom. A vintage Navajo rug, mounted on a movable panel, conceals a flat-screen TV.

“I’m always trying to take out the clutter,” Olson explains, adding that Haumerson does not necessarily share his neatnik philosophy. However, Olson also says that he particularly loves the beginning of a residential project, “where the client is telling me what they like and don’t like. It’s one of my favorite parts of designing a house.”

What Haumerson calls their “summer of back and forth” also included discussions about whether she could keep her existing barbecue (Olson’s no vote prevailed) or have the big speakers she wanted in the living area (she won that one). And then, of course, there was the issue of budget. “I’d bitch about the cost,” she adds, “and Jim would propose less expensive alternatives, but I always wanted the better thing.” However, she cracks, “I still bitch about it.”

A bedroom. There is a large bed with black bed linens and a gold colored blanket. Along the far wall are shelves with various object. Art hangs above the bed. There is a tan colored area rug under the bed. Another wall has floor to ceiling windows.
The master bedroom faces the garden, and has its own bathroom and dressing area.
A desk with a hat stand and hat. A framed work of art hangs above the desk. The wall is made of wood.
A hat--a piece of Northwest coastal art--sits under a watercolor painted by Haumerson’s grandmother in the Bahamas.
A desk with multiple clay objects. There is a floor to ceiling window behind the desk that overlooks lush trees and plants.
A group of antique clay vessels, from Studio Oliver Gustav in New York, came from a shipwreck off the coast of Spain.

Of course, the two also agreed on many things. They wanted the house “to feel as close to being outside as possible,” Olson says, and the high ceilings allow the windows on the garden side of the house “to go all the way up.” Clerestory windows in the main room provide additional light while maintaining privacy.

Haumerson loves the plywood Olson chose for the interior walls, and the recycled fir, from a local fruit warehouse, that he used for the exterior; it will naturally acquire a patina with age. And, she adds, “you can look through the house, from the backyard to the front yard. I like that.” Haumerson also praised Renee Boone, who was the project architect for Olson Kundig, for being “very focused;I’m always in three places at once,” as well as the contractor, Dovetail.

The end result, Olson says, is that “Melissa’s house is perfectly ‘her.’” In fact, Olson likes the house so much, he says he could live in it himself. “But I’d have to stain it gray.”

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