An Asian-Inspired Aerie

One couple proves that quality, not quantity, is the key to living right – and feeling right about it

Story by Mara Severin

Tom and Emily Wright's* exquisite and innovative home in Stuckagain Heights rests delicately, bird-like, at the top of its own little knoll at the base of the Chugach Mountains.

Steve Bull, Workshop for Architecture | Design, Seattle
Julie Smith-Lubke, HSV Engineers, Seattle
Steve Miller, Wintersun Design & Construction, Anchorage
Forest Stewardship Council certified ApplePly plywood; bamboo plywood; installed by Jon's Woodworking, Palmer
David Story, Precision LD, Seattle
Polished concrete floor
FGS Permashine, Alaska Pro Polish
Wood floor
Worthwood reclaimed fir block, Oregon Lumber Company
Wool carpeting
Classic Floors & Home Accents
Ipe exterior decking installed by Wintersun Design & Construction
Painted steel, installed by Anchorage Sheet Metal
Living room windows, sliding doors and entry door
Alaskan yellow cedar, Dynamic Architectural Windows & Doors
Bedroom/bathroom windows
Aluminum clad pine, Jeld-Wen
Aluminum clad pine, Velux
Glass mosaic tile, Ann Sacks
Wood stove
Kitchen counters
Absolute Black Granite,
Prestige Stone & Tile
Toto dual flush
Kohler low-flow plumbing fixtures
Energy Star appliances

"This was quite deliberate," says the architect, Steve Bull of Workshop for Architecture | Design in Seattle. "I designed the house to ride along the ridge top. It gives the house a perched aspect – it sits lightly on the earth."

When the project started, there was a building pad already on the site and the Wrights asked that nothing else be disturbed. So rather than making the house suit its natural surroundings, Steve made it part of them. "He oriented the house with the landscape," says Emily. "He managed to build it without removing a single tree."

First sight of the perfect site

When Steve first saw the property, he knew it was something special. "You could go out onto the ridge and see a birch grove on the north side," he recalls. "Then you would come around the tree-line and see downtown and the Alaska Range and Denali." For an architect who takes a special interest in the relationship between a house and its natural surroundings, it was an ideal site.

And the Wrights were the perfect clients. They wanted a sustainable home that would maximize the natural beauty that surrounded it and an architect who would understand their unique sensibilities about the home's interior.

The couple, having spent time in Japan, was heavily influenced by Japanese architecture, which emphasizes open, fluid and versatile space. Steve was taken with their vision. "I feel like he was interested in what we had to say," says Tom. "He took our ideas and he ran with them."

The result is a modern and inventive jewel box of a home with sweeping views from virtually every vantage point. For the busy young family that lives there it's a haven of respite; for the architect who helped make it happen it's a point of satisfaction.

Inviting the outside in

Steve loved the variety of vistas that the site offered and developed a strategy for integrating them into the home. "The bigger, more public spaces have a relationship with the big view – the distant landscape," he explains, "while the private spaces have closer, more intimate views."

The Japanese-style tatami room that extends off the main living area is an example of Steve's approach. The "quiet room" is used to meditate, read or relax and is so-named because of the rice-straw tatami mats laid out on the floor and used for seating. Steve designed it with windows at floor level, looking out at a close-up view of birch trees. "It's my favorite room," says Steve, "because of its west and southwest views." If you sit in a specially designed window nook, he says, "you can look down the whole length of the house and see the inlet."

In the main living area, the design invites the outside in quite boldly. The whitewashed cedar walls inside the home extend past the glass doors leading out onto the deck – part of both the home's interior and exterior. "In summer, we open the sliding doors onto the deck and it feels like one continuous space," says Tom.

Sharing space and sharing time

The proportions of the house, just over 2,000 square feet, are modest. It's a sign of changing times, says Emily. "The space was used wisely to make it feel like it's much bigger than it really is," she says. "I think that's going to be the new model. We're going to have to change our ways to become more energy efficient and space efficient."

By creating a home around the "great room" concept the family shares most space, Tom says. One extended, cunningly designed room is used for cooking, dining, reading, playing, and entertaining. The room is light-drenched, spacious and well-delineated, so the family can share time together but all be involved in different activities.

"We looked at how much time you spend in a space," says Steve, "and then focused on that. They wanted to avoid wasted space and wasted heat." So they made a tradeoff: while the main living area is open and sweeping, each bedroom is just large enough for a bed and a dresser.

Form follows function

Living in a smaller space doesn't have to be a sacrifice, say the Wrights. By utilizing some of the principles of Japanese design, the couple replaced footage with function. "In Japan space is at a premium," says Emily. "So you have to be very thoughtful about how you use it."

One example is the home's "wet room" – a bathroom with two sinks, a shower and a tub. Because the toilet room is separate, more than one family member can be using the room at once. For a small family, this could eliminate the need for a second full bathroom at all. Located right across from the laundry room, the space is also where clothes are changed and laundry is sorted. "It makes sense," says Tom. "It's very Japanese."

The home's guest bathroom is also a compact space inspired by the couple's travels. A shower room with a drain in the floor and a curtain cordoning the spray from the sink and toilet, the room is efficient and practical. "A separate shower and bath would have taken up twice the space," says Emily.

Opening the door to sustainable materials

While the materials used throughout the house feel rich and luxurious, they were carefully chosen to reflect the couple's commitment to conservation. Plyboo (sheets of plywood made from eco-friendly bamboo) apple wood, and cedar make up many of the home's surfaces.

The living room floor is a beautiful mosaic of small, tobacco-colored squares created from scraps reclaimed from fir door manufacturers. Turning the fir scraps grain-end up reveals distinctive patterns. The spacious deck that opens up from the living room is constructed of Ipe – a durable, renewable Brazilian hardwood that requires no staining and no upkeep. A low maintenance deck was a priority. "That was one of our criteria," Tom says. "We wanted nothing that that had to be re-painted or refinished." Adds Emily: "It saves us time, money, resources and chemicals."

At home in a modern world

A lean modern style is not always what most people associate with a busy young family, but Steve argues persuasively against this stereotype: "For me, 'modern' means really open and interconnected and filled with daylight. It's clean and organized – not necessarily all white and sterile. The space then gets filled with things that are needed for kids and friends and an active life."

A home that's beautiful, sustainable, saves time, money and resources, and encourages togetherness is clearly perfect for this young Alaska family.

*Not the homeowners' real names.