15. September 2014
Single-family homes in the United States tend to be one- or two-story buildings that sprawl across the land. Another tactic is taken in the aptly named Tower House designed for a steep and narrow Portland lot by architect Benjamin Waechter. Building up four floors allows for economical construction on a tough site, but also carefully framed views of the Oregon landscape. Waechter answered a few questions about the house.
View of entrance from street
Please provide an overview of the project.
The Tower House is located in the west hills of Portland, Oregon, overlooking the city and the Willamette River. It is sited on a steep and narrow lot with road access from above. The house is 4 stories tall with a footprint of 600 square feet. One enters on the third level via a 25-foot-long steel bridge. The house is clad in black vertical corrugated metal with rounded corners to achieve an uninterrupted fabric like sleeve. The simple volume is punctuated by three recessed loggias.
Detail view of entrance
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?
The steep and narrow site constraints were the main factors in developing the design. The property is tightly situated between an existing house and a natural ravine. To minimize foundation costs and to fit within the narrow lot dimensions we decided to build up rather than out. The idea was to design a house with one main room per floor and to surround this room with support spaces such as storage, stairs and bathrooms. The plan takes on a “donut” shape with the main room in the center and support spaces in the thickened perimeter wall. The perimeter is “carved” away in areas to create outdoor loggias and to make picture framed views of the city. In this way the house has both privacy and bold views.
Side view of house
Were there any significant challenges that arose during the project? If so, how did you respond to them?
With the added expense of building on a steep grade, construction costs were a significant challenge. The lean budget meant that we had to make smart and good value choices throughout the project. This started with choosing the small footprint constraint that reduced foundation costs. With careful detailing, such as the rounded corners, we were able to use a cost effective metal siding and still have it look good and perform well. On the interior, a hierarchy of room quality was established so the main rooms could have a good level of craft and materiality. The main rooms are finished with oil rubbed white oak while the support spaces are finished with simpler materials.
View through loggia from dining room
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?
Simplicity. The house has a small footprint to minimize storm water runoff and site impact. The building envelope is super insulated helping to keep heating and cooling needs to a minimum. Exterior materials were chosen and detailed to last a long time with minimum maintenance.
How would you describe the architecture of Oregon and how does the building relate to it?
The timber industry has a long history in Oregon. There is no shortage of quality woodworkers in Oregon and it is a great resource. At the same time however, construction budgets tend to be low relative to construction costs making it a challenge to fully capitalize on this resource of craftspeople. The Tower House’s concept of “3-main rooms” was a way to make space for these craftspeople while still fitting within an overall lean budget. Showcasing the craft of these woodworkers, the three rooms help establish the character and memory of the house.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.
Detail view of living room loggia
Cast models of plans
Cast section model
3 Rooms concept model
Lynn and Alan Crymes
Benjamin Waechter, Architect
Drew Krauss, Jared Abraham
Munzing Structural Engineering
Prutting and Co.
Orange Design Industries
Benjamin Waechter, Architect