Lucas Henning

Located on the west side of picturesque Camano Island in Puget Sound, the Saratoga Hill house was designed for an empty nester couple who wanted to downsize to a smaller, low-maintenance home on the water after living for years in a large house in the Seattle suburbs. As a boy, the husband and his family spent summers in a cabin on the property and he wanted a modern, new house to continue the tradition for his children and grandchildren.

Vacationers and snowbirds alike flock to the 40-square-mile island for a secluded getaway from the city, and the Saratoga Hill house, which has no road access, is especially remote. The owners must park in a common parking lot and walk to the house along a path that runs adjacent to the beach bulkhead.

This location made construction a challenge, says architect Dan Nelson of Seattle-based Designs Northwest Architecture. Workers had to carry the wet concrete for the home’s footings in batches on a forklift from the common parking area, and the contractor used a custom chute to pour the concrete from a basket into the footing forms on site.

In addition, the project team took great pains to make sure the house would stand strong against a range of environmental threats including mudslides, flooding, and wind-driven rain. Located on a steeply sloping site, the home is perched on 13 14-inch-wide, 9-foot-high steel columns to keep it out of the way of water and mudslides. Durable metal siding and roofing will stand up to Mother Nature’s wrath, and where the elements might get in, such as the home’s abundant Andersen windows, workers carefully installed a water-resistant membrane.

Although the home’s open-air lower level is focused on keeping the house protected from the elements, the living areas of its upper two floors celebrate the rugged setting. The west elevation’s floor-to-ceiling glass takes advantage of wide-open views of the Saratoga Passage while on the east side, which faces the sloping yard, Nelson employed opaque walls with limited windows to give selective views of the vegetation outside.

Aside from the site’s limitations, the project team dealt with one other environmental issue: the local fish population. To protect the shoreline breeding grounds of a small silvery fish called smelt, materials could be trucked to the site only at specifically mandated times of the year. Because protected wild salmon feed on smelt eggs, the site was monitored by a biologist to make sure none were disturbed.

Despite the challenges of its austere location, the finished home feels like part of the landscape. “The design of the house is a direct response to its site,” says Nelson.