Although his one-person firm, Atelier Waechter, has only produced two houses to date in Portland, Ben Waechter seems to be one of Portland’s major young architectural talents. And not just because he learned his trade working for two of the world’s most acclaimed architecture firms, Renzo Piano Buiding Workshop in Italy and Allied Works here in Portland.
Waechter’s Z-Haus, included in 2009’s 11xDesign homes tour, boasted a unique floor plan with a succession of half-levels that made the whole house feel connected even when people were on different floors. Now, the architect has seen completion of a second house in Portland. It’s called the Cape Cod House, referring to the small single-story home (originally built in 1947) that Waechter’s design transformed into a more spacious but still not oversized three-story structure.
Although the house’s small original footprint (about 650 square feet) was retained, the ground floor is now a wide-open space that includes the living room, dining room and kitchen (bedrooms were moved upstairs). But the distinctive design move here and the most noticeable presence is a large floor-to-ceiling wood box that encloses the stairways (upstairs to bedrooms and the roof deck, downstairs to the basement), a bathroom and storage.
I said “floor to ceiling” but Waechter and builder Prutting & Company (a high-end East Coast construction company debuting in Portland with this project) took great care to craft the box so it stops just short of the top and bottom of the room, so as to seem like a piece of large furniture as much as interior architecture. “One literally steps into this wooden box creating a dramatic threshold between the main living space and the more private bedroom area above,” Waechter told me.
I might have preferred the box be cut into in order to bring natural light to the stairway and to make the structure seem less monolithic. But the craftsmanship here and throughout the house is particularly beautiful in its details, from window casings to the flooring to fixtures. That was a mark of the Z-Haus, but it’s an even more impressive display here given that the Cape Cod House was built at a substantially smaller budget. This is an inexpensive job that feels luxurious in its attention to detail.
“Andrew Friedman was a crucial partner in making the project successful,” Waechter said. “With a lean construction budget, Andrew was able to find cost effective ways to achieve a high level of detail and quality. The crisp and precise execution of the exterior cladding is just one example of this. To achieve this precision with a relatively small cladding allowance, Andrew enlisted the skills of a finish carpenter to make precise edges (corner boards, window trim and cap) and then the speed of a siding company to fill the field where imperfection is less visible.”
After taking the stairway up one level to the Cape Cod House's two bedrooms, one can continue upward to a rooftop deck. Pitched roofs are much more common here (as well as most places), and the rainy climate means preventing leaks is always a challenge. But there's no denying that the third level, clad in wood like a patio deck with the same footprint as the rest of the house, provides a lot of additional space. The view of North and Northeast Portland isn't bad either.
And like the box on the first floor that holds the stairway, pantry and powder room, the rooftop entry is comprised of a white box that is slightly off-center from the rest of the house. In both cases, it helps the Cape Cod House to exhibit a subtle departure from the symmetry one expects to find.
Both of Waechter’s houses have boxy forms – not necessarily that of the modernist wood box that has become a little of a Dwell magazine cliché, but still solidly square. For that reason, Waechter also points to another of his designs, a tea house in Eugene (also recently completed) for J-Tea International, an importer of Taiwanese oolong teas.
The J-Tea project transformed an existing single-family house located in a commercially zoned area into a retail space for tea sales and sampling. The project includes three primary elements: entry canopy, porch and interior “tea walls”. Each element is visually distinct and has a specific purpose.
The J-Tea canopy is made of white powder-coated aluminum louvers stand out against the more subdued galvanized steel structure. The white louvers are placed below the support structure to give the impression that they are floating in space like a cloud. The porch walls, floor and roof are made from a relatively thin Port Orford cedar glue laminated beam, supported by two concrete stem walls and cantilevers at each end emphasize the entry threshold. The tea walls form a contained ring around a central tea bar creating a calm and quiet room, and are are composed of a grid of maple plywood that circumscribes the room.
Meanwhile, Waechter has two more projects in progress. The Light Box in Northeast Portland is a house “sited on a uniquely shaped urban infill lot…shaped like a flag, narrow at the street and wide at the back,” the architect explains on his website, “To address the constricted nature of the site…the house generously opens up to the street and to the backyard while becoming solid along the side lot lines.
To daylight the central part of the Light Box, a double height space with light monitors was developed that floods the interior with diffuse north light eliminating concerns of solar gain and creating a gallery type ambient glow.”
The Garden House, also being built in Northeast Portland, was originally a dilapidated detached garage, rebuilt keeping the same footprint “but taking on a completely different form and function,” Waechter adds. Its new purpose is a what he calls a “garden room” that is “shaped as if a child had cut the silhouette from paper.”
As with the rest of the architect’s work, however, this simplicity is tempered by the sophistication executes fine details.