Out in the middle of nowhere in Washington state, in an extreme land where temperatures surge over 100 degrees in the summer and drop well below zero in the winter, is a growing community of striking modern homes designed by some of Seattle’s best architects.
These houses are mostly second homes, owned by Microsoft and Amazon executives, lawyers and other professionals, who trek some 200 miles east from Seattle across the Cascades to the Methow Valley, a 70-mile stretch that includes areas of pristine wilderness. The high-end houses are referred to as “cabins” because of their size—an average of 1,500 square feet—and their simple designs, which feature sloped, shed-like roofs, rusted metal exteriors and a rustic appearance despite all the glass.
Winthrop (population 430), along with Mazama (pop. 190) and Twisp (pop. 952), are the three towns in the Valley with the highest concentration of what are called Methow Modern homes. They are located along 22 miles of highway between the Cascade Mountains and a tributary of the Columbia River, each with its own distinct character.
A Home Away From Homes
Some of Seattle’s top architects have been building homes for clients in the wilderness of Washington state
A decade ago, the Valley, with a total population of under 6,000, was dotted with traditional ranch and log houses. Back in the 1970s, Winthrop was even turned into a faux Western town to attract tourists and has a Westernization Committee charged with maintaining the theme.
The area has lured people seeking a place of untarnished natural beauty with accessible outdoor activity—an antidote to Seattle that isn’t as full of vacationing Seattleites as many closer destinations. It isn’t unusual for these vacationers to become year-round residents, joining a community of craftsmen, farmers and like-minded environmental conservationists. The Valley still has no chain restaurants and no stoplights; the grocery store in Twisp has a taxidermy display that includes lions.
Among those lured by the natural beauty were architects inspired by the challenging conditions. They designed homes for themselves, which then attracted attention from visitors.
“We were definitely drawn here because of the architecture, says Dave Bacon, 43 years old, a software engineer at Google who is based in Seattle. Mr. Bacon and his wife, Lisa, who died this year from cancer, spent seven years looking for the right property and architect for their Valley home. They ended up working with Seattle firm Johnston Architects to build an angular, 1,400-square-foot steel, glass, concrete and cedar house with a shed roof that hangs far beyond its walls. It is on a 20-acre lot with sweeping views of the valley and the Sawtooth Mountains. The home, which cost about $600,000 to build, has one bedroom but can sleep 11, thanks to alcoves and sleeping areas hidden behind sliding doors—plus an outdoor hanging bed for warmer months.
The move toward modernism in the Valley is tied both to the type of clients attracted to the area and to the environment, says Ray Johnston of Johnston Architects, who with his wife, Mary, designed some 20 other homes in the area in addition to the Bacons’. People who come to ski, hike and mountain bike tend to want a structure that is small, with visual nods to the barns and sheds that already exist there.
Architect Stefan Hampden, a principal at Seattle firm Cast Architecture, says the changes have created a new vernacular, which he calls Methow Shed. For his family, Mr. Hampden just finished a 2,200-square-foot house with a corner that opens entirely to the outside on the Chechaquo loop, a road around a meadow in Mazama.
Seattle-based architect Tom Lenchek, who started going to the Valley for cross-country skiing and hiking in the late 1970s, says the change to the area’s architecture has been “an organic process.” Mr. Lenchek—inspired by a local designer and builder named Doug Potter who was building what he calls “shackitecture,” or small cabins made out of recycled wood and corrugated metal—started designing houses that had a modern aesthetic and an urban sensibility for clients he knew from Seattle.
Mr. Lenchek’s firm, Prentiss Balance Wickline Architects, or PBW, has finished 35 houses in the Valley and has five new homes in the works. As the demand rises so do costs, from about $260 a square foot to today’s low end of $350 a square foot, says architect Margo Peterson-Aspholm, who runs PBW’s Valley outpost.
Mr. Lenchek bought a 20-acre lot in 1984 for $17,000 and built a house in 2000 for about $300,000. A recently completed remodel—including pushing the living space out 8 feet, adding an outdoor area and a new kitchen—cost $600,000.
A house he designed caught the attention of Doug Ross, 64, an antitrust attorney in Seattle who regularly skied by it when he and his wife, Claudia Sanders, 65, an executive at Washington State Hospital Association, were in the Methow Valley. The couple bought a 1.3-acre lot on the Chechaquo loop and hired PBW to design a 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom home with reclaimed wood siding and two big stone fireplaces. The shed, with views of the mountains, has guards to retain snow on the roof as insulation in the winter.
A few houses away is one of the first modern homes on the Chechaquo loop, built in 2008 by Jeff Cysewski, 58, who owns a healthcare-management company in Kirkland, and his wife Nadine, 56. They noticed the work of Nils Finne of Seattle-based Finne Architects in a design magazine and then discovered Mr. Finne also owned land in the Methow Valley. The neighborhood association at first objected to the steel columns that raised the house off the ground and the way the shed roof warped upward at each end, creating a wavy look. But the couple prevailed.
“I feel like we inspired people,” says Ms. Cysewski.
Some Methow Valley residents resent the influx of second-home owners, calling them “206-ers” after the Seattle area code. More seriously, locals fiercely oppose large commercial-development projects.
A 1974 proposition by the Aspen Corp. to create a ski resort failed, as did a similar proposal in 1990 by a Bellevue company to create a winter and summer destination resort. Local groups are currently fighting attempts by a Canadian mining company to conduct exploratory drilling. The Methow Conservancy has negotiated easements for 8,507 acres in the area.
There has only been one major blow up over residential architecture, and that was caused not by the design but by the location of a steel cabin by Seattle starchitect Tom Kundig, built in 2012 along the edge of a ridge. The placement of the house galvanized locals and second-home residents. Cars sported “Move the Hut” bumper stickers and the Mazama Country Store displayed a gingerbread rendition of the “Move the Hut.”
Mr. Kundig, who moved the hut following a court order, declined to comment about the controversy. But he says his earlier projects, such as one in 2008 called the Rolling Huts—six 200-square-foot steel-clad boxes on steel and wood platforms—helped fuel the Methow Modern movement.
The big worry now in the Valley is wildfires. Architects have responded with design changes, such as minimizing wood on the exterior, eliminating crawl spaces and using los of stones and gabion walls in landscaping.
Anti-fire measures figured heavily in the design of a 2,800-square-foot main house and a 900-square-foot guesthouse that Colin Sands, a financial adviser from the Seattle area, just finished. He initially wanted a Northwest Craftsman. But his builder, an old friend, introduced him to Dan Nelson of Designs Northwest Architects, and Mr. Sands changed direction.
“It’s like there’s a covenant here now that you must build a modern home,” he jokes.
Corrections & Amplifications
Mazama, Wash., has a population of 190. An earlier version of this article said the population was 970. Also, a photo in the slideshow accompanying this article misidentified a store in Winthrop, Wash., as the Mazama Store in Mazama, Wash.(9/21/2018)
Three Valley Towns Full of Personality
- Mazama: The first town off Highway 20 has some of the area’s most expensive second homes. It is near a 120-mile network of cross-country ski trails. The highest concentration of Methow Modern homes is on a loop around a meadow called Chechaquo Ranch Road. Residents eat, shop, get coffee and listen to music at the Mazama Country Store. Warning: locals like to make fun of the second-homers riding up on their cruiser bikes to guzzle lattes.
- Winthrop: The town has a faux Western theme that originated in the 1970s as a way to attract visitors. Some modernism has since crept in among the breweries, souvenir, ice cream shops and the movie theater, Barnyard Cinema, above. The theater has reclining seats and a glass wall that turns from views of the Valley into a movie screen at showtime. The town remains a favorite stop for tourists, including men on large motorcycles who like to tour Highway 20.
- Twisp: The arid town has an earthy, funky, artsy vibe. Its Confluence Gallery and Art Center runs an annual house tour, and a collective called Twispworks is home to nonprofits and craftspeople. Nice Nests makes the bird houses found in many Methow Modern homes. Cinnamon Twisp Bakery is known for its mean gluten-free peanut-butter and chocolate-chip cookie—and its cinnamon twists. The local grocery store, Hank’s Harvest Food, has a taxidermy display.
Write to Nancy Keates at Nancy.Keates@wsj.com
Appeared in the September 21, 2018, print edition as ‘Modernism Meets The Great Outdoors.’