What better opportunity for an architect to express his vision and explore his skills than to build his own house. That’s exactly what Jim Olson’s cabin, nestled amidst fir and cedar trees and overlooking Puget Sound in rural Washington State, is all about: his desire “to be part of nature and observe nature”. But more than that, built incrementally in the course of six decades, it’s also an architectural palimpsest that celebrates the structure's history and evolution.
What began in 1959 as a twenty square meter bunkhouse near the small community of Longbranch, conceived by 18 year-old Olsen as a place “to be in the woods” and built on a budget of five hundred dollars, the cabin has evolved through a series of remodels in 1981, 1997, 2003 and 2014 - through the Seattle-based architectural studio Olson Kundig that Olson co-founded in the 50s - into a 240 square meter forest retreat that includes a master bedroom and two guestrooms.
Built on a hillside that faces south and looks across a body of water, the result of happenstance - the property has been in Olson’s family since the early 1900s - rather than any grand design, the cabin’s location and orientation proved to be the perfect place for contemplation and creative work, something that Olson realized later on in life while working in Asia.
Raised on stilts, the structure projects discretely out over the landscape through a series of elongated balconies and terraces that jut out between or through the trees - rather than cut three large trees that were in the way, they have been allowed to pierce through the outdoor deck. Although it was built in intermittent stages, each time the existing elements being integrated into the new design, the cabin feels and looks both homogeneous and in complete harmony with its natural surroundings.
The selection of building materials also plays a big part in the cabin’s harmonious integration into its forest setting where plywood and recycled boards cover the walls, beams are made of exposed laminated timber and steel, and fir flooring is used for both indoors and outdoors spaces. Similarly the subdued color scheme, including lots of gray and beige hues, not only reflects the silvery tones of the overcast Northwest sky and the earthy expanses of the shore, but complements the deep greens of the surrounding forest.
The seamless transition between interior and exterior is also enhanced by the extensive floor-to-ceiling glazing areas that allow for grand, scenic views of the landscape. After all, as the architect explains, “it’s all about looking out”.