BY BRIAN LIBBY
When I moved to downtown Portland 20 years ago, the east side seemed like a vast ocean that I knew little about, save for a few trips to the Baghdad Theater or, as a kid or teen growing up in McMinnville, to Lloyd Center or Memorial Coliseum. But eventually the Southeast, North and Northeast districts became in their way more of the true Portland to me than the central city. While it's the Pearl District and South Waterfront where the most development has happened—transitioning from industrial to mixed-use residential and commercial—it's really in Portland's neighborhoods where one arguably gets the truest sense of the city's soul.
Over my 20 years in Portland, it is the burgeoning of neighborhoods and their corresponding commercial high streets that has been as big a story as any. Look to North Mississippi Avenue or Alberta Street, Hawthorne Boulevard or Belmont Street, Williams Avenue or Division Street, and you'll find strips of restaurants and shops wholly different from what was there two decades ago. And surrounding those neighborhood high streets are a sprinkling of great houses: some new contemporary residences, others renovations of historic properties.
One can't talk about houses in our historic neighborhoods without discussing gentrification and the rapid eradication of old homes. Both are a very troubling phenomenon because they are causing displacement of our most vulnerable citizens and destruction of our historic fabric. But my focus in this post is going to be the architecture of 14 of the houses I've had the privilege to tour and write about over the last 20 years: the designs that stood out as my favorites.
In 2009, a group of architects who had developed their own projects got together to put on what was called the 11xDesign Tour, which I wrote about for Dwell. A handful of my favorite east-side house projects from this tour became my favorites of the past 20 years, led by Waechter Architecture's Z-Haus. This was the first house in what has since become a very impressive career centered around single-family homes, and it's still the most unique. The architect arranged rooms around a central stairway at half-story intervals, allowing people on different floors to make eye contact and converse. It’s such a simple move, and yet it deftly reinvents how a multistory house works.
"From any room one can simultaneously view the next level up and the level below, vertically unifying all living spaces," the architect told ArchDaily in 2010. "With one room per level, hallways are obsolete and useable square footage is maximized. Sliding wall panels are used instead of conventional doors to maintain the free flow of space, provide privacy when needed and allow for changing family needs and size. This organization creates a zigzagging pattern in section view, hence the name Z-Haus."
I suppose the contrarian viewpoint here would be that the alternating half-levels may sound like a cool idea but don't work so well in practice. Even though you can look up or down a few feet to communicate, none of the rooms are actually on the same floor, and it needn't have been that way. Maybe the unique plan is most successful as an idea, providing a design that seems fresh. But as we would learn in the years after the completion of Z-Haus, Waechter's true talent is not uncommon configurations of space but how interiors and exteriors are constructed with a breathtakingly elegant economy. More on that in a bit.
Another memorable North Portland house I visited, this time for Oregon Home magazine in 2010, was the Interchange residence by William Kaven Architecture. Kaven had also been part of the 11xDesign Tour, with the three-unit North House on Williams Avenue. But this house, in the Overlook neighborhood west of Interstate Avenue, was even more impressive. The U-shaped residence has a simple floor plan that wraps around a courtyard on three sides in the back of the house. Floor-to-ceiling glass give the living room, kitchen, study and master bedroom a bounty of natural light, while large sliding glass doors also help break down barriers between inside and outside. The understated interiors also make a nice backdrop for the client's extensive collection of art and artifacts from around the world.
I'm also a fan of architect Scott Pitek's Rahman residence in North Portland, which William Lamb wrote about for Dwell in 2014 and which was also part of the Portland Modern Home Tour earlier this year. This is an excellent example of compatible yet contemporary urban infill. The owner, Betty Rahman, maintained an existing circa-1919 bungalow with a large yard on a corner lot, but on the corner built a new house to occupy. "Pitek says Rahman told him she wanted a modern house, but one that would fit in unobtrusively among the structures that define her neighborhood, most of which appear to have been built between the 1890s and the 1930s," Lamb wrote. Indeed, the architecture echoes the vocabulary of older homes nearby, particularly with its pitched roof. And yet there is a crispness and simple elegance to the design that makes it identifiably of today.
The Skidmore Passivhaus by Jeff Stern's In Situ Architecture was another favorite when I wrote about it for this blog in 2014. It demonstrates exemplary energy efficiency with its robust insulation and high-performance as well as an interesting fusion of spaces. Stern created two separate architectural boxes, a single-story one that serves as studios for the architect and his wife, artist Karen Thurman, and then a two-story, one-bedroom main house. The two adjacent boxes are free-standing from one another yet connected with a translucent awning and a continuation of the back yard's elegant mahogany-decking facade material.
Not all my favorite houses to write about were new construction. I still think sometimes when I'm biking through Irvington about the Stuart House, which I covered in a 2009 article for Renovation Style magazine.
I've always been interested in projects that involve architects designing for fellow designers, as was the case with the Oakley House by Waechter Architecture, which I wrote about in 2016 for Dwell. The house is owned by Nick Oakley, who at the time was an industrial designer for Intel and previously had worked with the acclaimed Bay Area firm Ideo. "Ben’s work has a humility about it: a sense of purity and functionality, and a simple architectural gesture that made it stick in my head," Oakley said of Waechter Architecture founder Ben Waechter.
Like the Bogli residence by Architecture W, the Oakley House is a transformation of an existing home. At 1,200 square feet, he found the original house to be too small for himself and his 11-year-old daughter. Waechter’s plan used the structure’s existing 28-by-28-foot foundation and some of its walls, while the design opened up the ground floor and added 800 square feet in the form of a second story that cantilevers over both the front and rear elevations. When I talk with non-architect friends about the house, it's this windowless (to the street) second floor that is often the most divisive. We expect there to be glass on street-facing facades, so it's rather jarring to see such a large windowless space. Yet because the ground floor is entirely glass, I think it works.
What's more, the house shows Waechter's talent for mining elegance from simple materials. For example, the architect wrapped the upper floor of Oakley’s house in inexpensive black corrugated steel. By rounding the corners, Waechter avoided unsightly trim at the edges. Inside, the ground floor's combined living-dining-kitchen is festooned with maple, which creates a uniformity going from simple walls, for instance, to hidden closets. "We wanted some natural materiality in the house," Waechter explained. "But, for budgetary reasons, we couldn’t do it everywhere." So he deployed the maple in the main living space and used less-expensive drywall elsewhere. He adds, "The material palette creates a hierarchy of spaces."
Another favorite was the home at 2408 NE 28th Avenue, designed by Walker Templeton with Jon DeLeonardo and completed in 2013. Although it's not officially designed to Passive House standards, it is intended to be a 100-year home, with insulation and windows that go far beyond what code requires. As with Pitek's Rahman Residence, I liked how this contemporary home borrowed just a little bit from the geometry and pitched-roof forms of traditional nearby houses in its design. But I also enjoyed the materiality of the interior, particularly the use of reclaimed Douglas fir, which was used for most all of the floor, stair treads, shelving and other trim. All of it came from an 80-year-old warehouse. "The beams are all 20 feet long," Templeton said, pointing to the floor, as we talked for a Portland Architecture post, "so there’s no seams." But he's just as proud of things like interior closet shelving. "I hate walking through million-dollar homes and seeing particle board shelving. All this will be slabs of wood. Everything in this house is made to last for 100 years."
As I mentioned in the context of Architecture W's Stump House, I've always enjoyed designs that fuse new and old. But the Fivesquare house by Lever Architecture, which I wrote about for The New York Times in 2015, is an even bolder example. The owners bought the 1910 foursquare-style house in the Richmond neighborhood near Division Street with the intent to do what they called a "light remodel," most likely by extending the rear of the house. Instead, they expanded above. And unlike most construction in the city’s historic neighborhoods, which apes traditional styles in an effort to blend in, this house doesn’t try to hide its addition. The cube that Thomas Robinson and Lever designed to expand the unused attic space perches on top of the house, at a 45-degree angle, like a modern treehouse, offering panoramic views of the neighborhood.
“When we came up with this idea in the studio, everyone liked it,” Mr. Robinson said. “I was thinking, ‘Their neighbors are going to hate them — and the historic people are going to think we’ve desecrated this little iconic house.’ But it was intriguing.”
One of my favorite house projects to write about was a renovation of what had originally been a small branch library in Sellwood dating to 1915, although it had been built in a Craftsman style that blended in with the neighborhood. The Library House, as it's known, had also been used as an evangelical church after it was a library. By the time I wrote about it for a 2013 New York Times article, the building had already been converted to a house. But this renovation, by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design, really brought it alive.
The 1,500-square-foot structure was basically one large volume with no kitchen or bedrooms — although there was a bathroom and a basement with a dirt floor. The main space is now a great room with built-in shelving and library-style rolling ladders. They also extended the western facade, adding two small bedrooms, and expanded the basement to accommodate a recording studio (the clients were voice-over artists).
But when you write for home magazines and newspaper home sections, it's a story of the interior materials furniture as much as the architecture. Here the holes in the Douglas fir floors made by the church for microphone stands were patched, and the floors refinished. A large dining table was built with reclaimed wood from a pipe organ. Helgerson also balance the home’s boxy form with curvy, modern pieces like the Fireorb wood-burning fireplace suspended from the living-room ceiling and a Tom Dixon chandelier in the dining area.
PATH Architecture's Butler residence from 2009 is another favorite. The design was led by Corey Martin, now with Hacker Architects, and during this period the firm produced a number of good-looking houses. Here the cedar-clad second and third floors seem to cantilever slightly over the mostly-glass ground floor, giving the form a sense of lightness as well as providing covered entry and patio areas. Inside, a fireplace (which doubles as a column) extends all the way up the space while the public areas are largely double-height, which, along with the back patio door that folds away, blur the borders between inside and out.
The Wilson Residence, which architect Webster Wilson designed for himself and his family and which I wrote about for Sunset in 2010, also has stuck with me. The house, which was also included in 2009’s 11 x Design homes tour, is four levels, the bottom level reserved for an additional apartment that Wilson’s family rents out.
One enters at the second level into the kitchen and dining area. At 2,600 square feet, it is tall, thin, and full of light. I particularly liked the house’s two-story vertical window wall for capturing the view, as well as the design’s floating wood loft and stair. Also a big part of the exterior look of the project, at least on its back side with the east-looking view, is a wood and metal stairway attached to the building and giving it extra structural support.
The smallest of the single-family homes I will cover here is the Harpoon house by Design For Occupancy, architect Matt Kirkpatrick's firm. Kirkpatrick lives in this 700-square-foot home, which Amara Holstein wrote about for Dwell in 2011, with wife Katherine Bovee.
Despite its diminutive square footage, they managed to squeeze in not only a living/dining/kitchen area and a bedroom but 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 was built on a 50-by-50-foot lot that previously was the side yard of the house next door.
It's 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.
One of my favorites of the lot is the very smallest I'm including on this list, although the third by architect Ben Waechter and his Waechter Architecture: the Garden House, which Zahid Sardar covered in The New York Times.
"The cottage’s silhouette looks crisply modern: an upward-pointing arrow in a garden setting," Sardar wrote. "The arrow shaft has open-plan living spaces; horizontal windows are the only breaks on its south side; and wide floor-to-ceiling doors and windows open to outdoor living space on the east and west sides." The arrow is a compelling form, but it's really about practicality: using more square footage than your small footprint allows. Which is perfect for an ADU.
What do these homes have in common, or at least the new ones? When I scroll through the images above, I see verticality: stacked boxes, be they a new floor growing out of an old home or simply, like Harpoon House, going up when you have little room to grow outward. In some cases, I see nods to traditional style, but mostly it's a series of flat roofs, which used to be uncommon and considered a bad idea because of our rainy climate. I guess roofers are better than they used to be at preventing leaks.
In many cases I also see a certain asymmetry, either as an intentional departure from the balancing that goes on in traditional, classically-inspired home styles, or because many architects seemed to turn to the idea of one long, tall window in certain spots instead of something wider - like a vertical cell phone video's proportions instead of a letterboxed cinema screen. And of course we are more likely to go with a natural stain with our wood facades then perhaps we were in previous generations.
Today we are seeing more old homes than ever being demolished, usually in the name of much larger square footage. But we are also seeing a new generation of accessory dwelling units and tiny homes in people's backyards and even clustered together sometimes.