A Contemporary Long House
Inspired by Northwest Native American homes, a new retreat points its gabled prow seaward and shows off its structure inside.
Synopsis: On the shores of Puget Sound, architect David Hall has designed a summer residence inspired by an ancient model: a Native American long house. This home shares the traditional floor plan of common spaces in the center, flanked by private spaces along the eaves. Three sides of the house face the sea and its attendant harsh elements. Roof overhangs, sunshades, and patios provide shelter, while stainless-steel tie rods provide wind resistance. A Kynar finish protects exterior metal details; natural, camouflaging colors help the house recede into its forest backdrop.
When the Christoffersens invited me to visit their summer residence, I was not prepared for such a remarkable site. A rocky peninsula, approached from the east by a gravel road winding through evergreen forest, offered commanding views of Washington’s Puget Sound. A charming but dated cottage sat on the outcropping.
Early discussions centered on a remodel, but poor conditions and low, dark rooms made this impractical. We decided instead to start fresh, although shoreline regulations required us to build exactly on the footprint of the old cottage.
A modern floor plan from an ancient model
Traditionally, Native Americans of the coastal Northwest built long houses with their gable ridges pointing toward the sea. Because the water served as both highway and market, front doors always faced seaward. Inside a long house, communal activities took place in the center of the structure, and private spaces for clan families flanked the outer walls. A fire pit, whose smoke rose through an opening in the cedar roof, occupied a place at the lodge’s center.
The footprint of the Christoffersens’ original cottage — long axis running along the length of the peninsula — allowed the design of the new house to follow loosely the floor plan of a traditional long house. Quite often, waterfront homes are built with the broad side facing the sea to maximize views; but on a narrow outcropping with water on three sides, this traditional design becomes unnecessary. By reversing the main entrance from the water to the forest side, we were able to accommodate the obvious: Today, people arrive by car.
Along with its axial orientation, the new house has a floor plan that shares traits with a long house. Common spaces are in the center of the building, flanked by private spaces along the eaves. Two bedrooms, a den, and a kitchen are located to the sides of the main roofline; a fireplace, a hallway, and a living room are centered under the ridge.
A house battened down against the elements
Building on such an exposed site does not come without problems. Three sides of the house face the sea and must bear the brunt of its attendant sun, wind, rain, and corrosive salt water.
Ample roof overhangs protect the building from rain, while sunshades above the living-room windows help to reduce heat gain in summer. Patios off each side of the living room provide a sheltered outdoor space, regardless of wind direction. The metal roof, gutters, downspouts, and flashings all have a factory-applied Kynar finish, as do the aluminum windows. Finally, western red-cedar shingles and trim, with their time-proven ability to withstand harsh Northwest weather, clad the exterior.
In most buildings, the gable walls provide shear strength to resist the racking force of the wind. But in this house, we wanted as much glass as possible to take advantage of the view. Unfortunately, glass doesn’t have much, if any, shear strength. Stainless-steel tie rods were the solution: They give the gable end needed resistance to wind and other forces working against the structure. The rods are exposed elegantly just outside the living-room windows and are connected to eyebolts embedded in concrete.
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