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An Architect Couple Design Their Dream Home on Orcas Island

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A home should be a place where you can welcome your extended family — at least that’s what Leah Martin and Vikram Prakash thought. But while they loved entertaining at the house they shared with their three children, the experience wasn’t quite what they had in mind.

“What happens is that when everybody comes to our Seattle home, our lives are so hectic we don’t really get to spend time together in the way we would really love to,” Ms. Martin said. “We had been thinking for a long time that it would be so nice to find a place where we could all truly decompress as a family.”

The obvious solution, they decided, was to build a second home in a rural spot outside the city. And because they are both architects — Ms. Martin, 53, is a principal of the architecture firm Allied8; Mr. Prakash, 60, is a professor of architecture at the University of Washington — they relished the idea of designing their own home.

But where? In the summer of 2019, when Ms. Martin’s father came out from New York, he wanted to visit Orcas Island, a popular getaway reached by ferry. Ms. Martin and Mr. Prakash had never been, and they were spellbound.

“It was just the most beautiful place,” Ms. Martin said. “We were just mystified.”

While staying on the island that week, they began looking at real estate. “There were plenty of beautiful places,” Ms. Martin said. “We just couldn’t afford them.”

As soon as they returned home, they created a search on Redfin to alert them to new listings in their price range. The following day, they got a hit: a new listing for a six-acre lot in Eastsound. It looked promising, so they turned around and went back to the island.

When they saw the property, they “knew instantly” that it was the one, Ms. Martin said. Occupying the top of a ridge shaded by towering Douglas fir trees, it had views south toward Mount Rainier and north over the Salish Sea to Vancouver, Canada.

Because the lot was so steep, with almost no flat ground, building a house there would be challenging. But that also meant the property was relatively affordable. The couple closed on the land that October for $375,000, and then got to work.

To avoid the problem of clashing creative visions, they decided that Ms. Martin would take the role of lead architect, while Mr. Prakash would offer feedback.

“I was like, ‘OK, you do the project, and I’ll play the client,’” he said. “My original vision was very different, but I let her lead.”

Ms. Martin was so taken with the natural beauty of the site that she wanted to disturb as little of it as possible. “A requirement was that we did not want to take down a single tree,” she said. She also didn’t want to level the hilltop to create a flat building site.

She envisioned a long, slender 1,300-square-foot house on a steel frame that would touch the ground in only six places and cantilever off the hilltop on one side.

The house she designed — a simple rectangle with a standing-seam metal-gable roof — is clad in Kebony, wood siding modified to be weather resistant, and has steel overhangs that shield the windows and doors from rain.

Inside, Ms. Martin made half of the house an open area with a living room, dining space and kitchen, to provide plenty of room for family and friends to gather. In the other half, she designed a primary suite and a bunk room with space for up to a dozen people on six full-size mattresses.

To make the most of the home’s relatively small size, she left the ceilings open, painted the roof trusses white and ran sturdy lumber known as car decking in between, creating a loft that’s accessible by ladders.

“We have beanbag chairs that fold out to become beds, and carpets and lighting up there,” Ms. Martin said.

The space, she continued, has been taken over by their children, Saher, now 20, Renzo, 16, and Saumya, 14: “Even though there’s not acoustic privacy, they love it up there because they feel like they have their own little spot.”

C.A. Reed Construction began work on the project in the fall of 2020, but because of pandemic-related supply-chain issues and the weather, it wasn’t completed until last August. The total cost, Ms. Martin said, was about $850 a square foot — much less than the typical cost of building on the island, she noted.

Now, when she visits, she has a hard time believing it’s her own. “It’s just magical,” she said. “I don’t even know how to describe it.”

Her husband — and client — agreed.

“I think it’s amazing. It produces this sense of belonging and quietude by engaging with the site’s circumstances and ambient conditions,” said Mr. Prakash, ever the professor. “It’s a divine place.”

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