The House that Grunge Rock Built

A builder reflects on the most unusual, and the most thought-provoking, house he’s ever built


When it was my turn to interview for the job of building the new home on Mount Laslo, I allowed plenty of time to find my way along the sinewy mountain roads that encircle the small island where I live. I turned off Horseshoe Highway, one of our only paved roads, and meandered through forests of hemlock and fir until I spotted a plywood sign reading “Parker/Pavitt.” The short driveway ended in a clearing where an old, twisted fir presided over the top of a granite knoll. Two steel towers banked with photovoltaic cells faced southwest, where the land gently sloped off to open vistas of green islands and the Pacific Ocean.

About a hundred yards down the path, I came upon a tall, boxy guest house. Lavender stucco walls, bright yellow T-111 siding and a warped aluminum entry roof were good clues that this would be an unusual interview for an unusual house. I pulled off my shoes at the door and shuffled across bamboo floors. Bruce Pavitt and Hanna Parker, the owners, introduced me to their designers, Monte Antrim and Jerry Garcia and to an environmental consultant, Dan Neelands. We sat cross-legged on the floor in a rough circle, drinking herbal tea, listening to eerieTurkish music and poring over sketches of a house-to-be. As Monte and Jerry talked of “punched openings floating over waves of rock,” “gasket spaces” with irregularly shaped colored windows and a free-form study clad with brass shingles, I felt increasingly out of place.

“We think of it as an eye winking,” said Jerry.

Turning back to the drawings, I looked for clues of what he was talking about but saw only disparate shapes, like puzzle pieces spilled from a box. For a 2,500-sq. ft. house, there was an unusual complexity of materials, textures, colors and angles. On the outside alone, where most house plans in this region would call for cedar siding and trim, this one called for stucco, steel, stone, brass, concrete, plywood and beveled cedar siding.

“Can you build it?” said Jerry, interrupting an awkward silence.

As I drove away that afternoon, I felt glad to be back among the trees. I’ve built some unusual homes in my 22 years as a contractor, but this one was far and away the strangest, and the farthest from my own taste. I puzzled, too, over Jerry’s metaphor. Because Bruce Pavitt was the cofounder of Sub Pop Records, a label famous for popularizing Seattle’s grunge genre, I could imagine a deliberately irritating, in-your-face metaphor, but why an eye winking?

When Jerry called several days later to tell me I got the job, I wasn’t sure I wanted it. There were lots of good reasons to let this one go, not least of which was my suspicion that Monte and Jerry would not be able to translate their nonlinear concepts into linear working drawings. Without good drawings, a budget would be impossible, and without a budget, running an efficient job–which means not wasting other people’s time and money–would be difficult. What if Bruce and Hanna weren’t happy in the end?

The risks seemed endless. Besides, having grown accustomed to putting my heart into what I do, I wondered if I could find anything to love about this house. I wondered, in fact, if I could find anything to like about it.

Despite the persuasive reasons to let this project go, there was something compelling about the chance to shake things up, to learn something new. The whimsical, mischievous, subversive quality of the project flickered in my view like a shiny lure, and I swam out to bite.

Stirring up old conventions
On most custom homes, much attention is lavished on balance and orderliness. Doors
and windows are set with their head heights aligned, tiles are laid in patterns that are evenly spaced between walls, roofing and siding are installed in neat, uniform rows. Architects often call this process “discipline.” Whatever it is, and however conscious or unconscious we are of its presence, this left-brain way of organizing a design dominates.

Monte and Jerry decapitated many of these conventions with a few quick strokes (photos above, p. 114). The roofs on the Parker/Pavitt house slope two directions at once, and most interior walls are oriented at oblique angles (floor plans, p. 115). The windows vary wildly in size, shape and color. Some of them are flat and long, others tall and thin, some round, some curved, some with red glass, and some with blue or amber or green glass. Some windows are so small there’s more wood in them than glass. On top of that, there were five different jamb thicknesses and four different exterior treatments.

The free-form, brass-clad study is the single most distinct, incongruent element of the house (inset photo, facing page). Its tall shiny walls with a row of high windows conjure images of a spaceship, perhaps something found in NASA’s scrap yard and thrown at the house, only to penetrate slightly and stick.

The 2-ft. by 3-ft. brass shingles were designed to fit by Mark Padbury andJerry Timmons, who also built and installed the cabinets throughout the house. “The first problem was finding the right thickness of brass,” says Padbury. “We wanted a heavy gauge so that the panels would be sturdy and hold their shape over time, yet a gauge light enough to follow the radius without kinking or causing a struggle. We tested several thicknesses and found 20-ga. nonleaded sheet brass to be best suited for the job. The real challenge was the blind fastening system, which uses interlocking hems along the edges of the shingles to clip them together mechanically.

The brass shingles of the study disappear into wood siding and emerge again in the interior of the building as if uninterrupted (photo facing page). This same theme shows up in other parts of the house, where a texture or pattern collides with an adjoining surface as if it weren’t there, giving the appearance of things beginning but never ending. On many of the exterior walls, for example, windows are crowded randomly to one end or another, creating the feeling of a teeter-totter weighted heavily on one side. The trim on these windows is randomly pushed into adjacent walls or ceilings, adding to the impression of a wall that moves across and beyond boundaries.

Memorable finishes, with an emphasis on sustainability
The project was driven in part by Bruce and Hanna’s desire to use as many nontoxic sustainably harvested materials as possible (photos left, p. 119). Many of them came from the Environmental Home Center in Seattle (800-281-9785). For example, most of the floors in the house are made of laminated bamboo, which has working and wearing properties similar to oak. Bathroom cabinets and trim are made of coconut palm, a wood that we found to have a fascinating grain pattern and an unpredictable tendency to generate wicked slivers while being worked.

For some cabinet doors and countertops, we used a product similar to medium-density fiberboard. Called Dakota Burl (Phoenix Biocomposits; 507-388-3434), the panels are made of agricultural waste, in this case, sunflower-seed hulls.

In the master bath, the shower is finished with tile that is made of recycled glass (Bedrock Industries; 206-283-7625). But perhaps the most surprising recycled item in the house is the master-bedroom door, which Monte and Jerry made out of several old doors that were later recombined in a new way (photo right, p. 119).

Less exotic materials, such as plywood and pigmented plaster, are played throughout the house. In the living room, for example, a dark blue plaster wall caps the fireplace, flanked by flat-sawn plywood tinted with green aniline dye (photo p.118).

“Although we used a lot of environmentally conscious materials, it would be wrong to say this is a ‘green’ house,” cautions Dan Neelands. “We wanted to experiment with intelligently harvested and manufactured products, but there were other concerns, too, such as cost, efficiency and aesthetics. You have to weigh the pros and cons of each choice. For instance, we used R-Control panels (manufactured by Premier Building Systems; 800-275-7086) for most of the walls and roof, which have three times the insulation value of most homes; but at the same time, these panels are constructed with and OSB plywood that has a reputation for toxic off-gassing. In the end, everything’s a compromise.”

Steel detail abounds
One thing that we didn’t compromise on is the steel detailing. Our local welding wizard, Peter Welty, set up a shop on site and stayed nearly 11 months, fabricating stairs, the custom brackets that tie the house to the stone site, deck and stair railings, an entry bridge and assorted details such as window trims. The difficulty is compounded when you add the fact that we live on a small island with limited facilities. Raw material for every steel element had to be delivered by truck and ferry from the mainland, fabricated on site, shipped to the mainland for finishing and then hauled back to the site for installation.

As the project wore on, we learned to expect the unexpected from Monte and Jerry. We learned to count on them to do exactly what we would not do. At times, they demanded clean finishes and the utmost precision in craftsmanship, and at other times, they wanted finishes left rough, even shoddy. The demands on the work were intensified because we were never sure what was okay rough and what wasn’t, what was sloppy and what was cool. It made for an interesting paradox as we labored to create features that were precisely imprecise, cleanly unclean.

I had my tantrums. Several, in fact. And there were certain things my crew and I refused to do–like put animal fur on the upstairs yoga wall or use flat-grain plywood for exterior siding. In truth, the project evolved more like a lively conversation among a few dozen talented, opinionated and sometimes contrary people than like a bunch of guys executing orders from above.

I don’t know whether it was the quality of the process or what was evolving from it, but somewhere along the way, I found something likable, maybe even lovable, about the house. Where design elements at first appeared self conscious and dissonant, many of them came together with surprising playfulness and grace. I learned to appreciate the shapes and colors of the window walls, especially. When the morning sun hit the east wall, a bright amber light pierced the stairwell. When the sun was low in the sky, it lit up the west wall, and a mosaic of blues and greens and reds drifted across the bamboo floor.

18 months later
We started the house in the spring and finished late the following winter. In the warm seasons, we’d sit with our legs draped over the rocks eating sandwiches for lunch, and when it was cold, we’d huddle around a space heater inside. In either place, someone would inevitably ask, “So, what do you really think of this house?” Responses were never lacking. Someone said it was cluttered and juvenile; someone else said it looked like a beer can with a wraparound deck, or a snake that swallowed a goat. “If you could extrapolate punk rock into architecture, this is what it would look like,” said a visitor. And there were those who saw it as a work of art, more sculpture than architecture, filled with sophisticated surprises like jazz.

I can’t say I know what Jerry meant by his metaphor of an eye winking, but reflecting on it now, I see it as a gesture that represents the best of the human spirit–forever driven toward things that promise renewal, risk, change, openness, inspiration. For those of us who worked on the Parker/Pavitt project, a house will never be just a house again. A project may not be the home that we would build for ourselves, but it changes the one that we would.

Separate spaces for separate views
Part dwelling and part  metaphor, the Parker/Pavitt
house floats over a site that resembles waves of granite.
Individual rooms are turned to focus better on specific views.

Bedrooms: 3, plus an office
Bathrooms: 2
Size: 2,500 sq. ft.
Cost: N/A
Completed: 1999
Location: Orcas Island, WA
Architects: Jerry Garcia and Monte Antrim
Builder: White Construction Co.

Drawings: Mark Hannon

Jonathan White is a builder and writer living on Orcas Island, Washington. Photos by Charles Miller.