BC Custom and Grimshaw bring a leaf to life in Portland’s Southwest hills
This article originally appeared on Oregonlive.com on May, 2015. By Janet Eastman.
Something’s adrift in Portland’s Southwest Hills. Modern houses – of steel, cement and glass – sit on a onc
e-vacant cul-de-sac seemingly far, far away from aging Victorians and other old Portland housing stock.
Amid these glass wonders is a home so out of the ordinary that passersby wonder if it’s even a house at all. It looks more like a ship, especially in the mist. Underneath the aluminum roof are planks of dark, rough-hewn cedar siding punctuated by porthole windows and embedded with 2,000 stainless-steel bolts.
Two thousand. Bolts.
Swing open the glass front door and enter the long corridor – the spine of the house – that eventually leads to the great room. You’ll pass many small, oddly-shaped rooms, even an exposed engine-type space that holds water heaters installed pristinely enough to be displayed like furniture.
Behind another sliding glass door is an office with steel-framed, round windows perfectly positioned on the curved wall.
Keep walking. Past two bedrooms and more curving walls, enough to flummox a contractor, and more porthole windows. Then move into the great room and be blasted by a sight usually reserved for a retail space: A two-story wall of commercial glass framing evergreens, maple trees and sky.
Fronting the 20-foot-high glass wall are sunken seating areas and an elevated platform for a grand piano, floating in a sea of concrete. Trip in the right spot and you’ll land softy onto an orange cushions.
Congratulations. You have just toured Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s world, Portland-style.
The celebrated British architect – who also designed Waterloo International railroad terminal, Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood manufacturing plant and the Cutty Sark conservation project – has yet to visit the Pacific Northwest, but he designed a house for a client who asked for something extraordinary.
It’s so out of the box that there is no category to slot the style: Ultra modern concrete floors are kept warm with radiant heat. The family-friendly open kitchen has a 12-foot marble slab island and a wall for chalkboard messages.
The clients bought the empty lot and Gary called on Grimshaw, whom he worked with 20 years ago through Herman Miller modern furniture, and asked if Grimshaw could recommend an architect who could design something unlike anything else. Grimshaw replied: “I can do it.”
Grimshaw, whose work is influenced by his appreciation of shipbuilding and organic forms, says the single-story house was inspired by the palmate shape of a maple leaf. The long corridor from the front door to the glass wall represents the spine of the leaf and the rooms branch from it.
The house is remarkable in another way: He designed it from 5,000 miles away, using technology barely available a decade ago: 360-degree videos and Skype conversations.
“The images and videos of the site helped me to build up a complete three-dimensional picture in my mind,” he says. “When all the information about climate, orientation, altitude and study of the vegetation were added in and physical models are made, you really feel you are living and breathing the site.”
The leaf shape isn’t evident at first. (Look at the image of a leaf and then Grimshaw’s sketch and you’ll see how he thinks). You really need to be up in the air, looking down at the roof to see the shape.
Neighbors standing on sidewalks and watching the house during construction couldn’t figure it out.
“People asked us if we were building an ark,” said the clients. “But once they heard of the leaf concept, they understood the roof.”
An ark. A ship. A maple leaf. Just don’t call it a spaceship.
Everybody who has moved into a new-to-them house knows that the first year is an adjustment. How much sun comes through windows in each season? How well does the kitchen work during Thanksgiving and other holidays? Are there any leaks? Squeaks? Needed add-ons or subtractions? What’s missing to make this house a home?
“It was straight-forward, traditional,” said the happy new owners. “Nothing is straight-forward about this house.”
“We have people drive by as we are sitting in back and they call out, ‘I love your house!’ I don’t know if they know the architecture, but they can tell it’s unique.”
Even the architect is curious. “It will be fascinating to eventually see how close our understanding of the site is to reality,” says Grimshaw.
— Janet Eastman