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Sunday, November 19, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

New Kid On The Block -- This Custom Home Plays With Modest Materials

VISITORS RARELY HAVE trouble finding Reilly Jensen and Judy Meleliat's house.

"You'll know it when you see it," the owners assure their guests. Indeed, with its four-story framework and broad, white-brimmed roof, the house towers over its neighbors like an adolescent after a growth spurt. Protruding decks and angled bays animate the boxy exterior, giving the contemporary design a traditional sense of detail.

Jensen, a graphic designer, and Meleliat, a marketing executive, moved into the home last May after building it from scratch. "We didn't think we had the money to do a custom house," Meleliat admits. But after eight months of fruitless househunting, she and Jensen were convinced they would never find an existing house they liked at a price they could afford.

Their resolve was cemented when a real-estate agent showed them an infill lot bordering a Madrona cul-de-sac. They felt the mix of old and new homes in the neighborhood could accommodate the kind of structure they envisioned.

Next, they needed to find an architect who could translate that vision into a design that would be imaginative, but not opulent. "We wanted the house to be very comfortable and not overly formal," Meleliat says. "We wanted someone who was not going to give us marble fireplaces and maple cabinets in the kitchen."

The pair found their soulmate in architect Gordon Walker. Although Walker had established his reputation designing houses (as a partner at Olson-- Walker Associates), he hadn't done many private residences since his split from the firm nearly a decade ago. He was eager to get back into the fold.

"I didn't want to do big houses," Walker says. "I wanted to deal with modest budgets and modest materials, and really well-defined spaces."

The Jensen/Meleliat residence gave him just such an opportunity. The 2,300-square-foot home (built by TGP Construction of Seattle) forgoes formal rooms and flashy finishes in favor of airy, loft-like spaces and unpretentious industrial materials. Although the owners decline to reveal the construction cost, the project was in the low-to-average range for a custom home in Seattle.

The property's view potential and narrow, 42-foot width dictated building a house that was tall and slender, like the brownstones Meleliat remembered from her childhood in Chicago. To prevent the place from looking like a "skinny house," Walker sheathed the exterior in channel siding applied horizontally instead of vertically, so the eye is drawn from side to side. Horizontal window panes reinforce the illusion. An arbor straddles the driveway in front, while a parapet frames some windows on the side, diminishing the home's apparent height.

Exposed steel fasteners adorn the house like jewelry, celebrating connections the way arts-and-crafts designers glorified joinery. Pipe railings - an architectural staple since the '20s - are updated with galvanized finishes and skewed handrails.

Walker joined the four floors with a switchback stairway that's almost like a piece of sculpture. Floating treads rest on a galvanized-steel spine that resembles a vertebra from underneath. Openings in the side wall provide glimpses of every floor and help keep the stairwell from feeling claustrophobic.

The stacked floor plan allowed Walker to assign different functions to every level. The ground floor is given over to parking, while the second floor is dominated by Jensen's office and a guest room. The living room, dining room and kitchen are situated on the floor above, and the tree-house-like master suite is perched on top.

From their fourth-floor aerie, the owners enjoy views of the sun rising over the Cascades and panoramic vistas of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier. Twin hallways (one skirting Jensen's closet, the other passing Meleliat's) lead to a common bathroom blessed with a vaulted ceiling and a tub that overlooks the top of the Seattle skyline.

The owners are passionate about art, and advised Walker to provide plenty of display space. (They got it.) Most prominent is a window hanging by Chris Ramon made from objects discarded on a beach.

Fir-framed windows from Quantum were juxtaposed with floors paved with squares of medium-density fiberboard (MDF), a high-grade particle board that's been sealed with a protective Swedish finish. The same material was used to build the kitchen cabinets. The units were treated with nearly a dozen coats of taupe-colored stain, producing a smooth, grainless finish that rivals lacquer.

The countertops here and in the master bathroom were fabricated from cast concrete, reinforcing the industrial ambiance. Concrete frames the gas fireplace in the living room, as well. The fireplace flue was diverted to one side, providing a TV niche above the hearth.

The owners spent their decorating dollars as carefully as their architectural budget, mining maximum impact from a few select pieces of contemporary European furniture and lighting. The furnishings are as artistic as the paintings, making the home feel like a live-in art gallery.

Fred Albert writes regularly about home design for Pacific Magazine and other publications. Benjamin Benschneider is a Seattle Times photographer.

-------------------- Alternative flooring --------------------

Reilly Jensen and Judy Meleliat jokingly refer to their home as "the house of MDF." Medium-density fiberboard was used to build the kitchen cabinets and cover the floors. It's the latter application that makes the biggest impression and caused the most headaches.

Formed from wood fibers bound together with glue, MDF is far cheaper than hardwood flooring (approximately $20 for a 4-by-8 sheet), but can be labor-intensive to install. At the Jensen/Meleliat house, the subfloors had to be painstakingly sanded so the MDF squares would lay flat on top. (In retrospect, architect Gordon Walker thinks it would have been easier to apply a leveling compound over the subfloors, and lay the MDF over that.) The contractors, TGP Construction, also had to be careful their adhesives and sealants didn't dissolve the binder that holds the MDF together. Such precautions added time and labor, negating much of the material's savings.

The completed floors boast a handsome, wheat-colored patina that complements the owners' collection of art and furniture. Unfortunately, the uniform finish shows dirt easily, making maintenance a bit of a problem.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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