Prototype A, Ridgefield, Washington (photo by Chris Hodney)
A tract-home subdivision 25 miles from downtown Portland in Ridgefield, Washington is not usually the place to find award winning architects plying their trade. But that's precisely why Works Partnership Architecture accepted an offer from Ryan Zygar and Tamarack Homes to try and build a contemporary home within the strictures of affordability and speed necessary to the client and the home building industry.
As profiled in Residential Architect magazine by Meghan Drueding, the completed spec home, totaling 1,904 square feet and now for sale for $327,000, took 70 days from start to finish, including design time. Known as Prototype A, it features an upside-down floor plan with the primary living spaces and a master suite placed above a ground floor garage and two additional bedrooms. Designers and principals Bill Neburka and Carrie Schilling also chose to pull apart the two halves second floor to create a private courtyard. This gives rooms extra opportunities for natural light and cross-ventilation.
Looking at the house from the street front, it doesn't provide a lot of glass and transparency to integrate the private sphere with the neighborhood outside. The garage is front and center, which is never the best choice from an urbanistic perspective. But this is arguably a reflection not of Works' design decisions so much as the environment in which the house is being built, and what the market expects in terms of two-car garages over front porches. I'm not saying this house should be some new-urbanist cliche in which smiling families wave across their porch swings to one another, but it is unfortunate that subdivisions always seem to favor car storage so prominently at the expense of porches or other integrations with the public realm.
At the same time, the design also does something clever. It combines the traditional form of a pitched roof with the above-the-ground outdoor space delivered by flat-roofed designs. This way the house, while modern, fits in well with the McMansions or more modest traditional looking tract homes in this realm even as it stands out from them.
Still, the fact that Works and the builder made this striking design happen within market confines is impressive. "Zygar wanted to challenge himself and his staff to build a different kind of house for the same cost, in the same amount of time, and using the same materials and techniques as a standard production home," Drueding writes.
Of the architects, she adds, "Used to creating custom homes, they found they had to adjust their drawings to dovetail with typical production building methods. 'It was a great education for us, understanding how these houses get built,' Neburka says. Adds Schilling, 'It’s fast, inexpensive, and efficient.'"
Prototype A, Ridgefield, Washington (photo by Shawn St. Peter)
If the home sells in an acceptable amount of time and for an amount close to the asking price, perhaps it may convince other builders to construct houses using Prototype A's blueprint. After all, most home builders don't necessarily have anything against modern design so much as they believe the market wants traditionally styled homes. However, every trend is cyclical, and history has shown there are times when contemporary design can register on a broad scale.
In early and especially mid-20th century, ranch houses became popular for their blend of old and new forms, and many contemporary subdivisions by builders such as Joseph Eichler in California and Robert Rummer here in Portland saw dozens of contemporary houses snatched up by middle class families. What's more, the functional quality of modern homes became a way of life, eschewing the warren of small rooms common to Victorian houses in favor of greater openness. Today even if a suburban house has a traditional looking exterior, its great room is decidedly of today.
Prototype A, Ridgefield, Washington (photos by Chris Hodney)
Creating a popular contemporary home plan that is replicated by other builders doesn't require just a good design, but a business partner willing to make it happen and the interest of the public. As has been the case with the trend of prefab homes as celebrated in Dwell magazine and elsewhere, the good design and the first prototype are just the first of several steps necessary to achieve the large scale of home after home being built.
Hopefully Prototype A, if its design is as compelling as it looks in these photos, will prove its success over time by being more than a prototype.