In Seattle, a Modern Home That Looks Toward the Sky and the Water

Back in 2009, while he was still training to become an architect, Daniel Toole listened intently as a friend’s parents mused about building a modern house next to their traditional home in Seattle.

The couple, Liliane and Michael Flacco, had an extra-wide lot and used much of it for a large garden. But after raising their sons, Mr. Toole’s friend Nicolas, now 39, and Alexander, 34, in the three-story, early 20th-century house, they wanted to downsize to a smaller, modern one. Their long-term plan was to subdivide the lot, sell the old house and build a new one where the garden was.

“We had lived in that house for 30-plus years,” said Mr. Flacco, 69, a retired anesthesiologist. But after the children grew up, “it was way more house than we needed.”

Ms. Flacco, 71, who was born and raised in Switzerland, was thrilled by the idea of designing something dramatically different from their old home. “I had always liked modern architecture,” she said. “My idea was to do a kind of Scandinavian, simple house.”

To the budding architect, it sounded like a dream project. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to get this project,’” Mr. Toole said.

So even as he continued his studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design — and then flitted between Tucson, Ariz., Berlin and Portland, Ore., to gain experience working for architecture firms including Studio Rick Joy, Barkow Leibinger and Allied Works — he kept in touch with the family. In 2016, he finally got the job, with one requirement: The Flaccos asked Mr. Toole to partner with Carsten Stinn, a friend who was a more experienced architect.

The Flaccos also knew the contractor they wanted to build the house: Phil Robison, of PH Robison, a family friend who employed their son, Alexander, as a carpenter. Most of Mr. Robison’s experience was in building Craftsman-style houses, and Mr. Toole worried that the contractor wouldn’t be able to realize the project’s minimalist details. But without much say in the matter, he acquiesced.

Over the next two years, Mr. Toole and Mr. Stinn labored over the details of the 3,300-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-story house. The final design used two materials for the exterior: The first level is concrete, imprinted with the wood grain of the boards used to cast it, and the top level is clad in blackened shou-sugi-ban wood siding, which looks like the negative image of the concrete below.

“I really wanted to try to bring a sense of massiveness to this house, even with the parts made of wood,” Mr. Toole said. “We wanted it to be rough and robust to give a sense of permanence and connection to the earth.”

Ms. Flacco is an avid gardener, so the home has multiple outdoor spaces. A kitchen garden is positioned between the front of the house and an existing brick wall where the lot meets the street. The U-shaped floor plan creates an exterior courtyard at the center of the home. The backyard offers more garden space that falls away to a view of Lake Washington. And much of top of the structure is covered by a green roof.

Inside, strategically placed floor-to-ceiling, 10.5-foot-tall glass sliders open to the outdoor spaces while preserving privacy from close neighbors on either side, including the Flaccos’ old house, just five feet away. A few long skylights help illuminate the living room, the stairwell leading up to the bedrooms and the primary bathroom. “In those spaces, we just turned the windows to the sky,” Mr. Toole said, so they didn’t look directly at the neighboring houses.

And although it is a two-story building, the architects designed the house for aging in place. The ground floor includes an office that could be converted into a bedroom, with a nearby bathroom that has a curbless shower. Space for an elevator is also roughed in.

Just as the architects completed the design, Mr. Stinn bowed out of the project. Mr. Toole oversaw construction, which began in April 2018, and made routine visits to Seattle from his home in Portland, where he was employed at Allied Works.

Working with Mr. Robison, he soon realized he had nothing to fear. Not only did they share a mutual appreciation for exacting detail, but Mr. Robison discovered he liked Mr. Toole’s work so much that he eventually commissioned the architect to design a modern house for him.

By the time Mr. Toole was furloughed from his job at Allied Works at the beginning of the pandemic, he had secured enough contracts to establish his own firm. After pandemic-related construction delays, the house for the Flaccos was completed at the beginning of 2021, at a cost of more than $3 million.

Ms. Flacco developed a landscape plan with her friend Dodi Fredericks, a landscape architect, and has continued to tinker with the meadow-like gardens, which sprout with Japanese maple trees, hydrangeas, ferns and sedums. “I want a loose, more natural landscape,” she said, as a foil to the clean lines of the house.

There were moments when the Flaccos worried that a concrete house might feel too unforgiving, but their concerns were allayed once they moved in. “There are a lot of gray, wintry days in Seattle, and I was afraid that I would feel like I was in a bunker,” Mr. Flacco said. “But it’s a really warm, inviting house.”

“After a few days,” Ms. Flacco added, “I didn’t want to go back to the old house at all.”

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