BY BRIAN LIBBY
If I were to use the phrase, "700 square foot residence," one might expect it to be an apartment. And indeed, just a few years ago Matt Kirkpatrick and Katherine Bovee lived in a Southeast Portland apartment of that size. But now, they live in and own a 704-square foot house, complete with a basement, a root cellar, an outdoor deck, and a vegetable and herb garden. It's a far cry from the average modern American house, which was 2,349 square feet in 2004, although the Harpoon House is not too dissimilar in size to the average in 1950 for a single-family house: 983 square feet.
Tall and thin like a small wood-ensconced tower at 16 feet long, 28 feet wide and 28 feet tall, the Harpoon House is also a striking design, like a geometric sculpture born from our rainy, woodsy climate. By this point the Harpoon House, designed by Kirkpatrick's firm, Design For Occupancy, has been covered in magazines from Dwell to Portland Monthly. But recently, I paid my own visit to the project and came away just as impressed.
Our area has long been known for Northwest Modern homes, dating back to the designs of John Yeon and Pietro Belluschi in the 1930s that fist blended Bauhaus-style glass boxes with the wood construction, pitched roofs and overhangs appropriate to the Oregon climate and other influences such as Japanese and Scandinavian design. The Harpoon House is a departure from that tradition in some ways, being multistory with a flat roof. But it's all Northwest in spirit. Belluschi and Yeon would have built this way - efficient and compact yet still soulfully woodsy Oregon - were they working architects today.
Built on a 50-by-50-foot lot that previously was the side yard of the house next door, the Harpoon is a series of stacked spaces; one walks up a half-flight of stairs to the combined living-dining area with windows wrapping around a wall of built-in shelving. Upstairs just one doorless bedroom space in which the double bed sits at eye level above an open closet. Half of the upstairs was reserved for an outdoor deck, which is partially enclosed by lattice-like wood that drapes its perimeter and completes the rectangular shape of the tower. Recalling minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, the rigidry of the open-box geometry guides the eye not just to its outer shape, but the volumes inside.
Now that some time has passed since the Harpoon House's initial construction, its exterior wood has been allowed to age, something usually undesirable (and why wood exteriors are usually painted rather than stained). The result is a constantly changing surface with nuanced beauty. "Early in the process when developing the initial concept for our house we were really interested in the idea of aging gracefully," Matt Kirkpatrick writes on the Harpoon House's blog, "and that certain materials, when allowed to show their age, can be extremely long lived with very little maintenance. I’ve been noticing lately that this aging has begun to happen in a very visible way."
As if the Harpoon weren't impressive enough as beautiful architecture and demonstratively compact, not-so-big living, it's also the recipient of the top-level Platinum LEED designation from the US Green Building Council. Its features include a 433-square-foot eco roof, which diverts rainwater runoff in winter and keeps heat out in summer, and structurally insulated panels that provide efficient insulation. Windows are triple-pane and the wood floors are FSC-certified.
"Sustainability at Harpoon House is not: a green-washed interior, a checklist of eco-gadgets, an exorbitant budget or a pat on the back," Kirkpatrick writes on the Harpoon House website. "Sustainability means smart design and an integrated approach to planning, designing, building and living. Our house went counter to many of the assumptions that LEED for homes takes (heating load too small for mini-split heat pumps, no landscape irrigation), but through a few appeals we were able to proceed. Its exciting that despite the setbacks, and without currently having any power generation, smart design was able win us a Platinum rating."
That said, Kirkpatrick and Bovee have been considering solar power for their roof, which would compete for space with the eco-roof plants but, according to research by Portland State University, may actually aid some of the native plants by providing extra shade. "We are looking at a 1.785KW array that will cover about a quarter of our total energy needs, and this has a total installed cost of roughly $11,500," Kirkpatrick writes. But after incentives from the Energy Trust of Oregon as well as federal and state government tax credits, the solar panel will only cost about $2,200. It would provide about one-fourth of the house's total energy needs, and the payback would be about 10 years, meaning in a decade a quarter of their power will be free.
The homeowners also note that with their Buckman neighborhood seeking to become a national historic district, they feel compelled to invest in the solar array now, fearing the new strictures would add layers of cost and red tape that would make the panel setup unfeasible afterward. Which is unfortunate to read, because historic districts also do great amounts of good in preserving architectural character in neighborhoods. Can't there be a balance struck between preserving history and allowing modernity to be placed on top of it? Before the days of cable and satellite television, plenty of old houses used to have TV antennas mounted on their roofs, and they didn't break historic-district rules. Solar panels ought to be the same way.
In a continuing era where there is a glut of inefficient, oversized builder homes sitting vacant on the margins of the metro area, the Harpoon House is a lesson in the smarter residential architecture we'll need more of, in Portland and beyond. Its approximately $225,000 budget would be affordable to most in the middle class, but within that budget there are significant investments in the kind of efficient materials and methods that will make the Harpoon's true cost of ownership even smaller, even though the per-square-foot cost here is quite high. But again, consider that Bovee and Kirkpatrick barely spend any money to heat and zero to cool their home - and with all the space left over by building up instead of out, there's even a garden outside to feed them.
"In many ways, it’s hedonistic,” Kirkpatrick says in the Dwell article. “We get all the things that are great about owning a house without the extra baggage of a bigger place."