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Sunday, September 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Economy, with Interest: When structure and finish materials are the same, efficiency happens

You can almost hear the sound of a cash register when Stephen Williams talks about the house he built for himself and his 7-year-old daughter, Brita.

"The house had to have good design because I've always been interested in design and architecture," he explains. "That meant hiring an architect to draw up the plans."

Ca-ching.

It had to have a gourmet kitchen, with a presentation area where Williams could entertain guests and prepare dinner at the same time.

Ca-ching.

But it's Brita's house, too, so it had to have volume, with spacious rooms she could fill as she grew up. "And it had to be indestructible — she needs a place to go out and chase the deer and pheasants and a place to come back in and clean up."

Ca-ching. Ca-ching.

But the cash register sounds would be imaginary. Williams didn't have anywhere near the $250 a square foot or more most new architect-designed homes cost these days. He's downsizing and doesn't make the salary he once did.

Williams, who is division president of a company that licenses new technology, is nothing if not persistent. He got the house he planned, architect and all, on about an acre of Bainbridge Island overlooking Rich Passage.

For under $150 a square foot.

"This is not just a cheap house where we cut a lot of corners. No corners were cut," says Bill Chester, the Bainbridge architect who has helped Williams transfer his plans into reality. "We tried to use ordinary materials in a sculptural way. It's an efficient way to build a house."

Williams' two-story house is not very large — 2,700 square feet. But it contains plenty of contemporary architectural interest. The floor plan is open and airy, with ceilings that average 11 feet, giving the house the "volume" Williams wanted.

"I'd always carried around a lot of ideas I wanted expressed in the house," says Williams. "I always liked urban loft spaces, not so much for their industrial nature, but for the empty space that you turn into useful space. And I love the rooflines of Italian hill towns, the way the houses all cluster around a central focus."

To accomplish architectural interest on a limited budget, many of the structural materials are also finish materials. On the lower floor, for instance, unadorned concrete became the architectural focus. A concrete "spine," which Chester sees as "a fortress wall," begins outdoors, near the entry, and runs through the house, forming a backdrop for the living-room fireplace and a wall for the kitchen. "For more interest," Chester says, the spine has been left with the bubbles and pockmarks that occurred during manufacture. Its dyed slate-green color contrasts with the natural gray concrete floor.

In the living room, the concrete has been molded to frame trapezoidal patches of carpeting. In the kitchen, concrete forms a bunker that becomes counter and storage space as well as a food-preparation area for dinner parties.

There are no expanses of tile anywhere in the house. Instead, individual designer tiles have been stuck here and there. Tile fish swim across the concrete from stairwell to kitchen. Half a dozen pewter tiles set off the fireplace mantle.

"They're like little precious touches in a sea of ordinary material," Williams says. "Little icons of interest. Other people can afford a sea of precious touches, but I can only afford icons."

Williams saved some money by keeping his floor plan open. "There's only a couple of doors in the place," he says, "only where there are toilets."

He also figures he saved a bundle by using ready-made birch cabinets from Ikea in the kitchen and bedroom closets. "The cabinets priced out at about $7,000 installed, but they would have been $35,000 if we'd used custom cabinets," Chester agrees.

More money was saved by using thick tongue-and-groove car decking as both ceiling on the lower floor and flooring above.

Such savings allowed Williams to use top-of-the-line appliances in the kitchen.

Walls throughout the inside of the house are painted shades of green. The open-space hallway that shoots up beside the stairwell from the main floor to the second-floor bedrooms features rectangular islands of maple paneling floating on a hemlock-green wall. Stair treads and mantle are laminated beams.

The upstairs is divided into "Steve's half" and "Brita's half" with a connecting hallway. Brita's room is larger — 600 square feet — with a huge double closet that will accommodate toys now and a teen wardrobe later.

Window and door frames are a bright Tuscany yellow, inside and out. "It's 50-year cladding, so they won't have to paint it for half a century," says Chester.

"There's no earth-tone colors here," says Chester. "The Puget Sound area is so gray, and when I look at the architecture here, so often it's in earth tones. In the sunshine, they're just gorgeous. But in winter they just die."

Williams' house may be both architecturally interesting and inexpensive to build, but it wasn't smooth going at the beginning.

Most home builders don't have experience with the industrial materials Williams and Chester chose to work with. One quit mid-project, and other local builders turned the job down. Williams finally hired his nephew, Len Michelson, of Everett, who has had experience with industrial construction.

"I had fun with the house," Michelson says. "There's a lot of things that are different about it, but there's nothing that hasn't been done before in a different location. Most people will pick out one industrial material for an accent, but they won't put it all in the same house. We just took it one thing at a time and it worked out."

Sally Macdonald is a former reporter at The Seattle Times.

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