Seattle architect Jim Olson’s weekend retreat is a powerful, 50-year testament to the ways buildings and people can shape and serve one another. In 1959, it was just 14 square feet, a low-cost cabin with million-dollar views of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier. Over time, the little building would undergo five renovations, four of them major. It was to grow with the architect and his family, changing with their needs.
“It started out as a bunkhouse for teenagers, then for a young couple and then for a couple with small children,” the principal at Olson Kundig Architects says. “Then it was for a middle-aged couple, and now it’s for an older couple with grown children and grandchildren.”
Olson worked on the house during four key junctures of his life – at ages 18, 41, 61 and 74. Over time, it grew into a 1,200-square-foot second home. Most recently, the architect added another 1,200-square-foot master suite with guest rooms.
There was no grand plan at the beginning. It was more like a Thoreau-inspired desire to co-exist with the forest – a tiny structure set out on posts in the woods, conceived to be gentle with nature. “I just wanted to sit on the deck and listen to the birds and watch the squirrels with that wonderful feeling you get in the woods,” he says. “To me, it was the biggest thing I could imagine at the time. When you’re 18, you can’t ever imagine being 74,” he says.
Over time, its design evolved with the architect himself. Initially built of framing lumber with cedar board-and-batten siding, wood-planked floors and recycled windows, it now stands as a highly sophisticated paean to an unusually gifted architect. “Over time I switched to plywood, then to certified plywood from a sustainable forest,” he says. “In the 2004 version, the plywood was broken into four foot panels, and I introduced a little metal into it.”
Those plank floors now have given way to concrete with hot water heat running through them. By 2014, he started breaking up the size of the plywood paneling for a more nuanced look. “In the bedroom it’s almost a weaving of different sizes,” he says. ” It’s more about artistic poetry than a rational grid, because of the changes in technology and in my own thinking.”
Then there are the cantilevers: ambitious and graceful, they swing the building way out into the surrounding forest. “You can go so much further with a thin piece of steel than a thick piece of wood,” he says.
He’s gone to extraordinary lengths to bring nature into his built environment too, designing windows with hidden edges for a no-glass effect. At one three-dimensional juncture where the window turns a corner, he’s installed a speaker wired to a microphone in the trees, enabling him to hear the birds without stepping outside. “I’ve been working on it for years,” he says. “It’s my own thing – I’d probably have a difficult time persuading clients to listen to the birds.”
He worked through that no-glass solution in 1990 for a client in Seattle, then installed it in the cabin. Its interior circulation pattern was developed in a similar manner. “The colonnade that gives it circulation also ties the rooms together. It’s circulation space that’s also about something else,” he says. “For clients, it’s about art; with us, it’s books, so there are bookcases. You do learn a lot from clients.” More likely is that they’ve learned a lot from him too – and from the design of his cabin in the woods.
–J. Michael Welton