Before Colin Brandt began work on designing a house overlooking Washington state's Puget Sound for Barbara and Peter Bradfield, he spent an afternoon on the Bradfields' boat. Brandt, his wife, and another architect from his Seattle-based firm, The Brandt Design Group, joined the Bradfields on their 1940s restored wooden cabin cruiser, lolling about on Seattle's Lake Union. They ate dinner as the sun set, and the guests had an opportunity to learn a little more about the couple.

In six weeks of preparatory meetings and discussions about the house they wanted to build, the Bradfields conveyed their love of the water. Peter's career began at the Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Calif., followed by three years as a mate on merchant vessels and 32 years in the maritime shipping business. Barbara grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Together, they've owned many boats and spent time cruising all the way to Alaska with friends, their three daughters, or alone.

On board, Brandt began to “really appreciate the compactness of it, the fact that there isn't any space wasted on a boat; everything has at least two purposes, if not three. It's built for comfort and efficiency, and they appreciated that,” the architect adds.

MAXIMIZING VIEWS: Colin Brandt designed this house overlooking Puget Sound in Washington state  to take advantage of the landscape and provide a clear sightline of the water.
MAXIMIZING VIEWS: Colin Brandt designed this house overlooking Puget Sound in Washington state to take advantage of the landscape and provide a clear sightline of the water.

So the idea of water and boating was there from the beginning of the design process. But it didn't become a metaphor for the shape and materials of this house until Brandt assessed the lot—a steep space with many trees and a view of the Sound. To build the 2,800-square-foot home, Brandt had to literally split it in two.

POETRY OF THE PLACE Creating a house with both environment and homeowner in mind seems like a no-brainer—every builder takes these things into account.

But doing so to such a degree, where specific characteristics of the region as well as the people who will inhabit the home are woven into its design, is becoming less prevalent.

Years ago, that was how houses were built, says Matthew Taylor, assistant professor of architecture and construction management at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. “We didn't have excavating equipment, and we didn't build houses 250 at a time, even in the 1940s and 1950s,” says Taylor, who designs and builds custom homes.

BORROWING FROM THE SEA: With the design of a sailing vessel in mind, architect Colin Brandt created  porthole-like windows on one wall and expansive walls of glass on another (above). Narrow  hallways resemble gangplanks. Outside (next page), the undulating  terrain required creative construction, with the house divided in two parts, almost  like a boat tethered to a dock.
BORROWING FROM THE SEA: With the design of a sailing vessel in mind, architect Colin Brandt created porthole-like windows on one wall and expansive walls of glass on another (above). Narrow hallways resemble gangplanks. Outside (next page), the undulating terrain required creative construction, with the house divided in two parts, almost like a boat tethered to a dock.

He readily admits that such focused projects are not common in today's world of residential building. This personal type of building makes more sense, he contends, but today, large-scale cookie-cutter developments are the money-makers. Lately, Taylor's been witnessing a mass development process up close and personal. Up the road from where he lives, a company is in the process of constructing a 300-home project.

“It's very hilly terrain,” says Taylor. “They plowed the hill, moved the dirt, and started plopping in houses. That has nothing to do with landscape, absolutely nothing. When you try to blend with the landscape, it's a more natural way of living and it makes a hell of a lot more sense. But it might not turn a profit.”

The way Brandt designed the Bradfields' house took more time than a production home, to be sure. First came client discussions to talk about what they were looking for. Next, Brandt gave them a homework assignment to write down evocative and pragmatic things they wanted from their house.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Seattle, WA, Olympia, WA.