By Meghan Hall
As urban infill housing becomes a more popular product type throughout the Puget Sound, some firms are expanding their offerings and rethinking their approach to project design. Seattle-based Wittman Estes, which traditionally specializes in architecture and landscaping, became its own client for the first time in an effort to test its knowledge of development and improve upon strategies long-used by development teams on infill projects. This fall, the firm completed the Tsuga Townhomes, a new multifamily project in the Highland Park neighborhood that Wittman Estes hopes will raise the bar when it comes to new development.
“We saw this as an opportunity to expand on our ideas about multifamily housing, specifically some of the ways we could elevate some of the infill housing we see in Seattle,” explained Founding Principal Matt Wittman. “…We saw the opportunity to push the envelope by being our own client.”
Founded in 2012 in West Seattle, part of Wittman Estes’ mission as a firm is to seamlessly blend buildings and landscapes together in an interconnected whole. According to Wittman, as Seattle has rapidly developed and infill projects have become more mainstream, there has been a growing disconnect between new projects and the historic neighborhoods in which they reside, resulting in high volume, low quality market-rate housing.
“A lot of infill housing in Seattle feels very disconnected, very inward-looking and very cookie cutter, where the buildings don’t recognize the context of the neighborhood,” said Wittman. “With this project we wanted to be more outward facing.”
Wittman Estes purchased, designed and redeveloped that roughly 5,000 square foot Tsuga Townhomes lot itself. The completed project includes three homes broken into one main house and a duplex. The 1,650 square foot main house was built on the re-purposed foundation of a 1940s, single-room cabin, while the duplexes each total 1,360 square feet. The ultimate goal was to connect the project to the outdoors and surrounding neighborhood context as much as possible.
Although the site itself posed some challenges, the firm was determined to make the most of the property. Wittman Estes began by pushing the two buildings apart, with the main house located towards Highland Park Way and the duplex was pushed towards the lot’s hillside. The space allows for the buildings to feel more separated and to allow for more light and air between them.
“The site was very unique in that it had a steep slope and some existing trees; I think many developers saw those environmental constraints as more of a problem, but we saw an opportunity to creatively work with the outdoor space to make it a more integrative, a more wholistic kind of multifamily housing.”
To connect the project to the outdoors, Wittman Estes focused on placing decks and porches towards the street and neighborhood. The duplexes, which are five levels, have accessible outdoor space on the first, third and fourth floors. A large green roof is also accessible to residents. Wittman Estes also included large windows throughout the project and carefully considered window placement. Windows were arranged so that they would always look onto green space or spaces that were in between neighboring buildings.
Wittman Estes also worked to carry the outdoors in. The floating stairs within the duplex are built out of reclaimed fir timbers that are more than 100 years old, and the stairs act as a central spine to both units. The kitchens feature solid white oak floors, high gloss windows, grey quartz and stainless-steel appliances. Ceramic tiles can be found throughout the kitchens and bathrooms, as well as water saving fixtures.
The main house features a variety of open spaces, including doors that open eastward onto its own deck. The residence also features a south-facing “mega-window” which is 16 feet in height. Tsuga hemlock wood screen directs sunlight through while allowing for privacy into the dining room and kitchen. High gloss white kitchen casework bounces light around the interior of the double height living space.
Landscaping was also a pivotal component. The existing trees on the property were maintained, and plants such as Lenten Rose, sword Fern, Dogwood and Vine Maple were added. Bioretention planters, steel edging were included in the final design, and permeable planters from Mutual Materials were used to create a plaza between the two buildings.
“The landscape is an important mediator,” said Wittman. “It allows for subtle gradations of public and private, that allows the residents to choose when to be seen and when to be private.”
The project was completed for about $185 per square foot, a 54 percent reduction in cost from the Seattle average, according to Wittman. The firm’s general strategy in building the project was to put more money into high-touch areas and areas that were considered more experiential, such as kitchens and the staircases.
“We wanted to change the paradigm where we did architecture but also did land development,” said Wittman. “Being our own client gave us this opportunity to make smart decisions about where we invested money and where we tried to be more cost efficient.”
Moving forward, Wittman Estes believes that projects that prioritize design excellence and quality are critical as Seattle continues to develop, and that developers should consider not just the site itself, but its relationship to the street, neighbors and larger community.
“As architects, we work to create a synthesis of beauty and function,” noted Wittman. “We also have a responsibility as urban designers—we must make sure the larger new infill housing fits well with the existing neighborhood and is a positive addition to the urban fabric of Seattle.”