December 1, 2011
A couple in Seattle builds a distinctive home for themselves, on a budget.
Malboeuf Bowie Architecture
9036 Third Avenue NW
One afternoon this fall the architect Tiffany Bowie was updating her portfolio at a copy shop in her neighborhood when the clerk caught a glimpse of her work.
“You live in the circle-window house!” the man exclaimed. “I drive by it every day!”
It is the type of spontaneous exuberance to which Bowie—who designed the recently completed 1,650-square-foot home with her husband, Joe Malboeuf—has become accustomed. It can happen while she’s out for a walk, shopping for groceries, or even answering the door. (Most recently, a Japanese couple came by, asking for the name of the architect; they did not leave disappointed.)
But while its right angles, cantilevered second floor, and prominent front window—the last an homage to the couple’s old watering hole, the Albert Ledner–designed Maritime Hotel in New York—demand notice in a neighborhood dominated by century-old bungalows, the home’s most striking feature is hidden from those passersby who lack the moxie to appear at the couple’s doorstep.
“The house is designed for you to be looking outside,” Malboeuf explains. Whether one is standing in the airy living room, sitting at the walnut dining-room table designed by the couple, or reposing in one of the two upstairs bedrooms, one’s gaze is inextricably drawn to the grassy backyard just beyond the windows.
Bowie and Malboeuf were living in New York when they bought the one-sixth-acre Seattle lot in 2008, with an eye toward building a house for themselves and a future child. (Their daughter, Anouk, is now two.) They envisioned a small urban infill project in keeping with the tenets of New Urbanism, which were drilled into the couple while they studied at San Diego’s NewSchool of Architecture and Design (where the two met), while avoiding that movement’s often saccharine aesthetics.
The pair’s elegant, sensible approach is both on display and underfoot, from the spare, abstract paintings on the walls to the concrete floors and the pipes just beneath them, which circulate hot water to warm the house.
Including the price of the land and permits, the house cost less than $500,000 to build. Keeping expenses under control meant making some difficult choices. The staircase, for instance—which, in a nod to Marcel Breuer, serves as a centerpiece—was conceived as a wooden structure resembling the stairs used to board a plane. When that proved untenable, the couple opted for a more economical yet extremely sleek steel structure, which was codesigned and fabricated by the metalworker Caleb Carlson.
Ultimately, says Bowie, the project was an experiment: “Can we build something with our design aesthetic, in Seattle, and keep it reasonably priced?” The outcome, she says, “was an amazing feat. It proves you can have a modern house in a city and not have to pay a million dollars.”