This is a story about a house, but the story doesn’t start with the house. Instead it starts with a man on a blind date. The year was 2000 and the man was architect Alan Maskin, who lived in Seattle’s dynamic Capitol Hill neighborhood, sketching and designing by day (and night) at Olson Kundig’s Pioneer Square office. “I was in my own little orbit,” Maskin, now a principal at the firm, admits with a sheepish smile. “At the time I couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Capitol Hill. But then, all of a sudden, I was dating a marine biologist who lived in Port Townsend, this little town that took up to three hours to get to every Friday night.”
After a year of frequent ferry trips—and a growing relationship that’s still going strong today—Maskin’s Capitol Hill–trumps–all mentality had atrophied, and he began to consider shifting his home base. “I had a really vivid dream about a tiny cottage with a view of the water,” he recalls. “I told my boyfriend and his brother about the dream and described the house. And his brother looked at me and said, ‘I think I know that house. It’s in my neighborhood.’”
The cabin, a 750-square-foot 1938 structure overlooking Agate Passage on the Olympic Peninsula, wasn’t for sale, and its less-than-pristine state (a kitchen in need of refurbishing; 7-foot ceilings; outdated electrical, heating, and plumbing systems) would frighten away most buyers. Maskin, however, was intrigued. “I knew I could remodel it, and remodels are my favorite projects,” he says. Months of back-and-forth discussions ensued with the resident, a woman in her fifties who studied mysticism and astrology.
Once she’d come around to the idea of moving—after checking the stars to determine the most promising closing date—Maskin hired an inspector to determine the structural conditions of the house. As the inspector descended into the crawlspace, a neighbor suddenly appeared, pointing to a dark mass hovering about 20 feet over the roof. It was a convocation of bald eagles, about a dozen in all. “You don’t see that every day,” drawled the neighbor.
“Well,” Maskin replied with a laugh, “I might as well cancel the inspection. This seems to be a sign that I’m supposed to buy the house no matter what.” But instead of an immediate renovation, he opted for a meditative, decade-long design process, during which time he slept on a mattress in the attic.
“I wanted to live in the house in order to study it,” he recalls now. “I wanted to observe how the sun moved through it, how the home worked acoustically and in the neighborhood, and how it could be transformed while still maintaining the character of the original cabin.”
“This cabin serves as the ideal antidote to my daily life, where I am constantly working on intense projects, going to meetings, and traveling. Out here there are no streetlights, very little noise. It’s monastic in a way that I really love.”
After a solid 10 years of daily study—“drawing and redrawing the house over and over again on my boat ride to work each morning,” he recalls—Maskin was finally ready to remodel. Joining forces with former Olson Kundig colleague John Kennedy of Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects and contractor Krekow Jennings, Maskin opted for several structural changes, but he was limited to interior and vertical moves due to zoning restrictions and health codes on the tiny lot. Together, the team revamped the former porch to serve as an office and dining area, transformed the upstairs into a bedroom with large west-facing windows, and installed a custom perforated and corrugated zinc wall that filters light from the bedroom into the downstairs double-height living area while maintaining privacy.
Walking through the cabin today, lines of differentiation between new and old remain boldly visible. The rich darkness of the original, brown-stained cedar panels form a stark contrast to the new engineered plywood ceilings, walls, and stairs.
While the cottage is largely a personal project, Maskin reveals that hints of Olson Kundig’s design ethos permeate every room. The skylights he punched into the new butterfly roof, as well as the material palette, were “influenced by Jim [Olson]’s use of verticality and views of nature in his Pioneer Square home, and by Tom Kundig’s ability to craft buildings from simple materials that you can buy at the lumberyard or hardware store,” he points out.
Although the process of buying and designing the cabin was, in most ways, unconventional, Maskin’s commitment never wavered. Even the diminutive dimensions suit him. “I don’t mind the smallness,” he says. “This cabin serves as the ideal antidote to my daily life, where I am constantly working on intense projects, going to meetings, and traveling. Out here there are no streetlights, very little noise. It’s monastic in a way that I really love.” Many with less fortitude would have quit after the first few hurdles, but for this architect, the signs always pointed toward home.