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Friday, October 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

A Blend, A Match: A cabin snug enough to accommodate friends as well as eagles

Building any house is a challenge, but when you want a family vacation house with a small footprint in a fragile landscape, special solutions are called for. As Sally and Tom Reeve might tell you, it helps if you're not in a hurry.

In 1992, the Reeves, who live in Bellevue, were looking for a vacation house on San Juan Island. Somewhat discouraged after a deal fell through, Sally stopped on Lopez Island, camcorder in hand, and shot images of two available parcels on the south end.

The properties were large, unconnected pieces; the seller was keeping a block of land between them. When Sally and Tom saw her tape, they were both so taken with the beauty of the coastline and woods that they bought both parcels, parked a 36-foot travel trailer on their new purchase and stayed in it summers and most weekends.

"We moved into the trailer with one toddler and one newborn, and moved out 10 years later with four kids and two dogs," Sally says.

They met their island neighbors at the laundromat or in line at public showers and got better acquainted with their land by walking it in all seasons. They used solar power and a generator, and spent many a rainy afternoon at the library to escape the confines of the trailer.

This is not to suggest they were pioneers. When the time was right to build, they chose the well-known Bainbridge Island firm of Cutler Anderson Architects. They were attracted to James Cutler's reputation for being able to wed structures to land with a minimum of site disturbance.

Sally recalls that as they were leading Cutler to their carefully chosen bluff-top house site, he stopped short of the goal, pointed, and without hesitation said, "The house goes right there," indicating a saddle-like declivity in a rock outcropping.

He soon convinced the Reeves that the sheltered spot would protect them from winter winds, be safer for children and — key to the couple's mandate to Cutler — blend better with its surroundings.

"Family compound" was a term that first came up in talks with Cutler and the firm's project architect, Janet Longenecker. So they, along with fellow architect Julie Cripe, developed plans for three pavilion-style buildings.

Now the Reeves and a large contingent of friends have an ideal place to share good times. Three distinct structures, or modules, are separated by breezeways and angled differently for view and privacy. Together they comprise a 450-square-foot master suite, a 1,200-square-foot communal room and a 900-square-foot guest quarters/bunkhouse.

The buildings are linked by a common roof, though it is anything but common. Long and sod-topped, it looks to be an ideal landing strip for migrating birds, and is tipped to mimic the shear of neighboring wind-swept trees. When seen from nearby rocks, the roof and house nearly disappear. It's not unusual for a mature bald eagle to land on a tree near the roof edge and calmly preen.

The sod's potential weight required structural components up to the task, and dictated the house's exterior framework. Waterproof membranes lie under the soil, and insulation beneath that, though the turf itself is an insulator. Water that would normally go down a drainpipe is siphoned to an underground holding tank, where it's reused to irrigate the roof in the dry season.

Under a snug roof, adults and children have their own spaces during long getaways. The younger kids and their friends always sleep in the bunkhouse loft, Tom says. Parents and older children choose from three bedrooms in the same module. For the more adventuresome, there is a studio with a futon down by the beach.

The bunkhouse, like the other buildings, offers views out over the rocky coastline, a hundred yards or so away and on the other side of a meadow, all part of the Reeves' holdings. The bedrooms have Arkansas-pine paneling on the walls, beech floors and Cutler's open-view approach to construction. His plans called for precise, finish-carpentry work for framing and structural materials that are designed to remain visible, which describes much of the great room.

Everybody eventually winds up in the great room, because it incorporates a kitchen, dining area and living room, a conversation corner, a reading nook and a library. High ceilings, extra-wide sliding-glass doors, light-toned floors and framing materials make this room feel more like a loft than a cabin.

Recently, the Reeves were able to purchase the middle section of property to complete their logistical puzzle. They now have 120 acres of coastline, woods, meadows and rocky outcroppings — a most rare privilege. A conservation easement restricts future home-building. Biologists review their inventory of plants and trees.

Cutler has done other work for the Reeves family, including a barn for llamas and sheep, a chicken coop and a couple of privies with composting toilets. As Tom says, "Jim draws a lot when he travels by air."

Sally, who serves on the board of San Juan Preservation Trust, a conservation body for the islands, describes herself as a "low-intensity birder." She and Tom recently saw puffins on a rocky outcrop off their beach.

Their house was winner of a 2002 American Institute of Architects Honor Award for Washington Architecture. "A collection of structures respond in a beautifully refined way to the site," the judges commented.

Meanwhile, the collection of people there this past summer responded in a relaxed and happy way; all look forward to more good times in years ahead.

Dean Stahl is a Seattle free-lance writer.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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