When last seen, William Kaven Architecture was completing the three-unit North House condominium on Vancouver Avenue in North Portland, a striking part of the 11 x Design tour of contemporary homes that were developed by the architects designing them. That project earned raves from many design enthusiasts but incurred displeasure from some neighbors who felt the site was appropriate only for single-family housing and traditional style.
Now, William Kaven - the firm owned by brothers Daniel Kaven and Trevor William Lewis, and named for their grandfather - is back with the Interchange residence. A single family home located in the Overlook neighborhood of North Portland, the Interchange takes its name and, to a degree, its inspiration from the tangle of freeway overpasses just west of the neighborhood. The client was a recent divorcee who also saw the house as the beginning of a new life.
The Interchange residence has a simple floor plan that wraps around a courtyard on three sides in the back of the house. Here floor-to-ceiling glass gives the living room, kitchen, study and master bedroom a bevy of natural light. Large sliding glass doors also help break down barriers between inside and outside, a trademark of northwest modernism.
The exterior palette includes a combination of metal siding and white masonry. Daniel Kaven has a background in photography that predates his architectural career, and that seems to have given the firm's collective work a valuable sense of proportion and materials. There are just a few key ingredients in the look of the house, but they move and undulate from the facade in a way that animates it without seeming loud.
This house does retain one aspect of the North House that I found less successful: a minimum of windows on the ground level. If a contemporary-styled home is built in a neighborhood of traditional bungalows and cottages, it doesn't necessarily have any responsibility to ape any of those forms to fit in. But I believe that large front windows are a kind of unofficial good-neighbor policy. When you don't have them, it can seem like you're closing yourself off from the life of the neighborhood and the street.
But don't get me wrong: The front window issue is a small one, and I'm an unequivocal William Kaven Architecture fan. And while they're designing houses and small condos now, there may be bigger projects from Kaven in the future. Lewis doubles as an architect for ZGF, the city's biggest firm, where he has gained experience that will hopefully allow Kaven to compete for larger institutional projects.
What's more, I've found the firms that participated in the 11xDesign tour to have a collective spirit of collaboration that is refreshing. "As the city has become infused with new talent, a small group of promising and accomplished designer-developers have banded together in a hybrid of traditional architectural or development practice. Small firms and sole practitioners here like Path Architecture, Atelier Waechter, and Building Arts Workshop still operate as individual businesses, and even compete for buyers. But they share research, marketing and design ideas; they’ve become a community," I wrote in Dwell in 2009. "The 11xDesign tour is just one of several shared efforts. Of course they still want to succeed badly, and they’re not without ego. That’s why these tiny firms are going forward with houses, condos and row homes during the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, when the city’s larger developers have long since ended their building boom."