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Saturday, March 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Savvy in Four Stories: An old triplex gets sleek and smart with glass and art

AIA HOME OF THE YEAR

With undeveloped in-city lots getting harder and harder to come by, homeowners and architects are increasingly seeing older homes as the best path to a contemporary new one. Such was the case with two vintage Seattle homes. Each posed very different challenges, but the results were so positive they both have been honored as Seattle Times/AIA Home of the Year winners. And neither has a garage!

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At first glance, it doesn't make a lot of sense to do a $700,000 remodel to an aged but expensive ($395,000) old triplex that has no off-street parking and stands next door to an equally old manufacturing building.

But owners Steve Bennett and James Nowak had good reason to do so. And architects Rick Ghillino, Rik Adams and Rick Mohler had the vision to carry it out in an award-winning way.

Indeed, their collaboration resulted in an artistic and economically savvy triplex that's been named co-winner of The Seattle Times/AIA Home of the Year award.

A block east of Seattle University just off 12th Avenue, the remodel technically is a skinny house — and couldn't be otherwise on a lot just 40 by 80 feet. But in ambience it's a dramatic loft-style home with voluminous open spaces punctuated by a four-story steel-and-glass staircase that's by any measure a work of art.

And rightfully so, considering that the wavy blue-glass stair treads are the work of Nowak, a glass artist who teaches summers at the renowned Pilchuck Glass School. Along with Bennett, he also owns the old manufacturing building next door, which is his studio. That explains why the duo was so eager to remake the old residence into a new home mostly for Nowak. (Bennett owns and runs a nearby bed and breakfast.)

Built in 1906 first as a single-family home, the building later was turned legally into three stacked apartments. "We bought it in 1999 to make a home for ourselves, but we had no idea what to do with it until we met Rick," says Bennett. That would be Rick Ghillino, of the architecture firm of Adams Mohler Ghillino. He took a lead role in the project, although all the partners worked on it.

Having paid more than it was worth (the previous owner had to be cajoled to sell), Bennett says he and Nowak had to borrow from everyone they could think of to get their dream home. "We had no money for a remodel, but wanted a beautiful house with lots of light. And they did it."

Early on, Ghillino realized that keeping the structure as a triplex had advantages. For one, the lack of parking was grandfathered, so it wasn't the problem. And, of course, there was the potential rental income to consider. But even better, by changing the configuration of the units, he could give the owners' unit a loft-like ambience that delivers a Mount Rainier view. "The potential was much more than was here," Ghillino says modestly.

That's why AIA Home of the Year judge L. Jane Hastings threw her vote to this project. "They did the most with a very difficult site. In fact, they really accomplished a great deal with very little and made a nice, comfortable space in an area that's not very residential."

Adams Mohler Ghillino's major feat was thinking anew about the space. Instead of working with the three stacked flats of roughly equal size, they began by creating two identical back-to-back studio apartments set slightly subgrade on the ground floor. Then, for the owners, they topped these revenue generators with a three-story pied a terre that's roughly a story taller than the preceding building.

On the owners' wish list were a minimum of rooms executed with a minimum of adornment. Just one bedroom would do, plus a home office. These, along with the master bath, occupy the first floor up. Atop it is the entertaining space: one long room separated by the staircase. To one end is the living area. It's set off on one side by a recessed alcove — one of several designed to hold furniture or art. On the other side of this space is an electronics closet secreted behind sliding doors set on a barn-door track.

Also on this floor, on the other side of the stairs, is the elegantly spare open kitchen and eating area. An island containing the gas cooktop and oven faces toward the living room, indicating the owners' wish for a space highly conducive to entertaining.

Atop this floor, and to one side, is the fourth level composed entirely of a rooftop entertaining deck.

What gives these top two floors punch is the bowed ceiling. "It gave us a lot of volume to get the deck in and to get volume into the living area," Ghillino says. Don't forget the drama, either. At night, with the glass stair treads shimmering from lighting below and the 16-foot ceiling illuminated by arcs of light, the space becomes a worthy stage for the owners' collection of glass and other art.

Elizabeth Rhodes covers residential real estate for The Seattle Times Home/Real Estate section. Her e-mail address is erhodes@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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