Port Townsend, Wash., is about as far from Dallas as you can get in the U.S., both literally and figuratively. With a population of around 9,000, the city is located at the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, about 40 miles northwest of Seattle. It’s surrounded by water on three sides and is known for its Victorian buildings, boat-building industry, and vibrant arts scene. It seems an unlikely place for a Texas couple and their Texan architect-of-choice to end up building a house, but that’s exactly what happened when Dallas-based Sally Warren and Jeff Jackson fell in love with Port Townsend. They decided to make it a new home for themselves, as well as a refuge for their two grown children, their friends, and family.
Despite the plethora of highly respected design firms in surrounding cities like Seattle and Tacoma, there was only one architect Warren and Jackson had in mind for their project: Dan Shipley, FAIA. From his Dallas office, Shipley had worked with the couple twice before, designing a ranch getaway for them in Bosque County near Waco and their home in the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas. “We know Dan as someone particularly sensitive to place,” says Warren. “We knew he would be able to understand the demands of the site, and what to embrace about the climate and views. We also knew he’d be sensitive to the neighborhood, as we didn’t want to destroy our neighbors’ views.”
The demands of the site were extensive. Warren and Jackson had enlisted the help of a local architecture firm to scour the area for a potential tract of land, at last settling on a 65-ft by 100-ft vacant lot with a long list of challenges. The property was completely overgrown with brush, difficult to access, and steep. Along with the rest of Port Townsend, it was located in a eismic zone. Peter Bates and Aaron McGregor, who worked for the local firm, took on the task of clearing out some of the brush. They discovered four mature fir trees as well as the potential for sightlines to the water and Mt. Rainier from the site.
By the time they finished this part of the project, their local employer’s firm had folded, and Bates and McGregor started their own construction company, Good Homes Construction. Both men had boat-building backgrounds. Bates had even graduated from wooden-boat-building school and had worked as a yacht rigger for five years. They brought a unique sensibility and knowledge of craftsmanship to residential construction.
Shipley visited the site and immediately recognized the project’s potential. The opportunity to work with Bates and McGregor was definitely not lost on the Dallas architect. “When you get contractors who are also carpenters, you’re steps ahead, but when you have people who have built boats, you’re way beyond that,” says Shipley. “I kept throwing these guys my best pitches, and they just kept knocking them back.”
Boat-building is in the DNA of Port Townsend, and more than a little of the craft went into this 2,900-sf house. According to Shipley, the design was vessel-like to begin with, with the unassuming shingled facade
taking its place in scale among the houses on the street. The back of the house was also scaled to the surrounding environment, with windows framing views of water or land. There was wood everywhere, including a gangway-like ramp up to the front door.
Nestled among the four fir trees, the house is a U shape built into the slope, with an L-shaped basement wall that provides the shear resistance for the street-side facade. To address the slope and seismic issues, the foundation consists of concrete stem walls bearing onto spread footings dug into the hillside. Stone was brought in from Montana for three fireplaces, which also provide structural support. “The chimney mass — the fireplaces and chimneys extend up through it — is actually a cantilevered column of reinforced concrete block that functions as the backbone of the house in that it provides the lateral support for the water-facing, mostly glass facade of the house,” says Shipley.
Essentially a two-bedroom house, the lower level is designed as guest quarters, with its own small kitchen and private entrance. Traversing the main level leads to several surprises, including a floor-to-ceiling window that frames one of the fir trees, a reading nook, a deck prism incorporated into the office window, and a wooden stepladder behind a hidden door that leads up to a sleeping loft. “There’s a feeling of being in an oceanliner in this house,” says Warren.
Wood dominates the material palette: Douglas fir for floor and doors; reclaimed cedar for exterior shingles and ceilings; and maple plywood on walls. One wall in the great room proves Bates and McGregor’s boat-building expertise: An extension of the ceiling, the cedar turns the corner and comes down the wall seemingly effortlessly, although Bates laughs at the word. “It takes an incredible amount of labor to get something to seem so simple,” he says. “But we were able to do some unconventional things in this house that we’re very proud of, like that cedar wall.” The other walls are nearly as impressive. Without any baseboards or crown molding, they seem to float off the floor. “We started with the middle panels and went from there on the walls,” says Bates. “We scribed them carefully because there’s nothing to hide mistakes.”
For Warren and Jackson, there is no mistake — the house provides them the perfect antidote to their existence in Dallas, where their house, although also beautifully designed by Shipley, is somewhat isolated from the street, not to mention landlocked and lacking the lush natural environment of Port Townsend. “Here, I can have the windows open all the time and hear the wind through the trees, or someone practicing piano next door or conversing as they walk by on the street,” says Warren, who hopes to one day retire to Port Townsend full time. “It’s our secret, alternate life.”
Ingrid Spencer writes about architecture from her new home in Austin’s Zilker neighborhood.
Published in the May/June 2014 issue of Texas Architect.