It’s tempting to regard a renovation budget as a restriction, whether embarking on a simple light-fixture upgrade or rethinking the whole house. But in the case of acupuncturist Leslie Bower and doctor Jessica Rongitsch’s Seattle home, the modest budget was a welcome challenge for local firm Shed Architecture & Design.
Rongitsch bought the small fixer-upper, situated at the high point of Leschi, in 2003, after moving from Minnesota to Seattle for her medical residency program.
“I wanted to be close to downtown, and I wanted sunlight,” she says. But her budget was tight, which led her to tour several diminutive, dark houses. When she did eventually find the house in Leschi, she could tell that it would need a substantial amount of work—but it was situated on a corner lot with sun and a view of downtown. Another surprise awaited her once she had closed: “I didn’t even know about the view of Lake Washington or Mount Rainier until I bought the house and went up on the roof.”
Fast-forward to 2014, and Bower and Rongitsch were ready to give their house the improvements it deserved. “We only had one bedroom and a crumbling bathroom and kitchen,” Bower explains, “and when we looked at moving we couldn’t find a house in our ballpark that had the things going for it we already had.”
They decided to embark on a major remodel of the home, and had already met with multiple architects and contractors when a friend passed on the contact information for Shed.
“After 10 minutes, we were in,” Bower says of their initial meeting. Principal Thomas Schaer immediately understood the couple’s love of their location and substantial garden, and they appreciated Shed’s approach, which Bower describes as “clean, beautiful, and functional.” Schaer was inspired by the couple’s love of music and their easy-going nature, and saw the budgetary constraints as an opportunity.
“I just knew that I could get on the same wavelength with those people,” he says. “You take that sensibility and that way of living, mixed with this relatively simple starting point of a 1000-square-foot-ish rectangle, and I was quite confident that something could happen.”
To stay within the budget, he made the call that they needed to keep the foundation and repurpose it, avoid any earthwork, and leave all of the utilities in place. Bower and Rongitsch prioritized too: They wanted their house to have easy access to the outdoors and to skew functional over fancy, capitalizing on views, light, and their yard.
Schaer reconfigured the first floor’s existing perimeter walls and fashioned new interior walls, and he added a second floor with a roof deck sporting 360-degree views. The exterior is clad in black fine-grain corrugated metal, which Shaer says looks great set against Seattle’s evergreen foliage. Plus, the color is a sustainable option.
“We’re still a heating-dominated climate, meaning you spend more energy by a significant margin heating than you do cooling,” he explains. “Having a house that picks up heat overall is a good energy.”
The exposed interior framing is one of the most striking aspects of the project. The choice allows for higher ceilings and adds the warmth of the wood to the main floor. Raw, 6-inch-deep LDL joists were strong enough to span all the way across the house with no center posts, creating an open area for entertaining and relaxing in front of a wood stove. The dining room and kitchen were combined for a farmhouse feel, with a long table running the length of the space.
“At night when you walk by, you can see the ceiling is illuminated, and it’s all wood,” says Schaer. “People are very intrigued with it.”
Schaer had a hunch that the couple could skip on central heating and get more than enough from the radiant floor, downstairs wood stove, and upstairs wall heaters to keep them comfortable yearlong, and he was right. Shed also maximized light with clever window placement throughout the home, Bower says, noting that there’s a beautifully framed view from every window. A custom mirror and shelving unit elevates the master bathroom, and the second bathroom doubles as a laundry room.
Bower and Rongitsch kept it simple when it came to furnishings to match the pared-back, raw materiality of the interiors. They centered the design of the first floor around a series of circa-1800s rugs from Rongitsch’s great-grandmother’s home in Minnesota. A piano and a drum kit also serve as focal points: Both Bower and Rongitsch play, and they have several musician friends. On the second floor, natural light, simple objects, and plants take the lead.
The couple stresses that the remodel was about utility and order over beauty. “We wanted a space that was functional, that by design made our lives ... slower and simpler,” Bower explains, something they’ve felt even stronger about with the recent addition of a baby.
The gardens, where they cultivate produce and ornamental plants, are particularly special. “We both grew up in places where we spent a lot of time outdoors, and we missed time spent outside in nature,” Bower says. Rongitsch spent years on the backyard garden, and they turned the entire front yard into a vegetable patch. Blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries surround the beds where they grow potatoes, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, greens, and herbs. They added a brood of hens, but stopped short on goats when, as Bower says, they “realized we would have to give up garden space for more animals.”
Their seasonal routines are now informed by the new home, which allows for an easy flow between rooms and levels. In the winter, you can find them in front of the wood stove, which is powered by sawdust logs made with scraps from lumber mills in Idaho. In the summer, they spend mornings on the roof deck, afternoons in the garden, and evenings out back.
“Without fail, every time we are away from home, when we come back, one of us within 10 minutes says, ‘I love it here so much,’” Bower says. “Our house feels like a little oasis.”