When the North House on Vancouver Avenue was featured in last year’s 11xDesign homes tour, the project was just a shell of itself—literally. The tour, which I wrote about for Dwell magazine, had featured houses in various states of completion, meant to introduce a group of architect-developers more than to act as a traditional look at completed luxury homes.
So returning to the completed North House a few weeks ago was long-anticipated treat. Not only is this an exceptional three-unit development in its handsome clean modern lines, warm natural materials, contributions to urban density and the opportunity it gives to introduce the talented William Kaven Architecture. It’s also a victory over a needlessly drawn out and bitter approval process that began with a disgruntled neighbor. Kudos to Kaven and co-developer Rich Anderson for seeing this impressive building through to completion.
Back in the summer of 2007, the North House’s design was approved by the City of Portland, but that decision was appealed by the neighbor who owned two adjacent properties.
"The proposed development is in a residential zone and therefore should be designed to enhance these existing and predominant features," the appeal argued. "The design is not compatible with the existing structures and neighborhood."
According to an Oregonian article by Fred Leeson written at the time of the appeal, the appealing homeowner “and her relatives have lived among the pitched-roof homes along North Vancouver Avenue for 50 years. So she wasn't pleased to learn that an adjoining house would be cleared to build a triplex. Worse yet, the proposed building would have a flat roof and storefront-style windows — nothing like the 1910 houses in the 4000 block on both sides of her street. ‘The design really sticks out,’ the homeowner said. ‘It doesn't blend in with existing houses.’"
A family's half-century legacy of living in a neighborhood is not something to treat flippantly. Longtime residents of a place deserve to be heard and respected.
And true enough, the city's community design standards for infill housing in older neighborhoods recommend pitched roofs of specified angles. But note the word “recommend”. After the design was approved and the initial appeal rejected, she kept on appealing all the way to the Oregon Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case was also rejected. (A call was placed to the homeowner to get her side; so far it has not been returned.)
I can understand concern among single-family-home owners about their neighborhood being dwarfed by condominiums out of scale with their houses. However, Vancouver Avenue is a major thoroughfare with different zoning rules than quiet back residential streets. It's also got nearly as many commercial buildings to provide architectural context as it does old single family homes. Yet even if you stuck to comparing it only to single-family homes, the North House still does not dwarf the properties around it; the Kaven design wound up about the same height as the rest of the surrounding homes.
I'm not saying the North House's composition perfect; I'm not crazy about the small slit of a window in the front of the house. And some have tired of the Dwell type this house fits into. But overall, I think this is a gorgeous contemporary design.
“The manner in which the City of Portland and neighbors can hold your design hostage has really gotten out of control," Daniel Kaven told me back when the house was first appealed. "There needs to be major changes in the 'community design standards' in order to accommodate modern design. Modern housing, which might only slightly deviate from the standards, is slathered in red tape, while awful track housing still gets the green light.”
Visiting the North House recently, not only was I impressed by the simple layouts and sumptuous materials (which include concrete countertops, reclaimed timber beams and stairs, and walnut cabinets) and huge amounts of natural light permeating the spaces, but it was contrasted by the decaying, garbage-filled adjacent houses. One of the two houses, the one immediately adjacent to the Kaven project, has a hole in the roof and some boarded up windows.
With respect to issues of compatibility in neighborhoods, I think the appealing homeowner is partially correct that we don't want to allow projects wildly out of scale to be placed next to single-family homes. However, a big factor is the execution. The North House is not out of scale, and it's a particularly exceptional design. There may be projects worth appealing, but this one isn't it.
The form of this triplex takes on a series of floating boxes, with the second floor gently cantilevered over the first and the small third-floor portions set back from the second floor. The effect is like a series of differently-scaled cubes, activated by a succession of negative spaces that foster shadows and plays of light. When standing outside the North House, looking up at the third floor, you can actually see all the way through the façade’s glass, making it a kind of sculptural object. Even so, those tiny third floors are no bigger than an adjacent house’s chimney.
When I originally wrote about William Kaven Architecture and the 11xDesign tour, it was a chance to recognize not only a group of local architecture firms taking initiative by developing their own small projects, but also to celebrate the top young talents of Portland architecture. And William Kaven definitely belongs in that conversation. During the tour itself, more attention probably went to finished projects like Ben Waechter’s Z-Haus. But the North House should announce Kaven loud and clear as a top talent and one to watch.