Retreat at the river

IT IS SO PEACEFUL at Jim Dow's little house in the woods you can really hear yourself think.

The rain thrums on the roof.

Or, better yet, not think.

Leaves, heavy with water, bow their green, green heads.

"This place is just to get away and be quiet for the weekend," Dow says of his Skykomish Tye River cabin. "It's not a place for a family to go with a bunch of little kids and do a bunch of activity. I taught meditation for about five years, and my motivation was to build a little retreat place."

The river pushes and hurtles and tumbles and foams its way past.

"It's about being there. Resting. Sitting by the river. It's really important to do that in your life or you're really going to lose touch."

This tiny retreat, with 600 square feet of space on the main floor (a box 25 feet by 25 feet), is Dow and architect Tom Kundig's conduit between man and nature, structure and nature. It is about making the connection: Concrete and steel and wood meeting rock and tree and water.

The energy flows from the huge, outstretched glass cabin doors and is received from the forest and river. Back and forth. Blackened structural metal takes on a rain-induced rust. Glass doors, one 8 feet by 8 feet, pivot completely open. And then there is nothing to separate structure from nature.

"Working with Tom is so great because he's not anal about anything," Dow says. "He just wants to create a beautiful building. It just so happens we have a similar aesthetic with concrete and steel and wood, and how they go together."

Dow certainly knows a fine building when he sees one, and, as managing partner at Schuchart/Dow residential construction, when he builds one.

"I worked with Christopher Alexander," author of "A Pattern Language," on a Whidbey Island house. "That set me on my course. . . . He hardly does any drawings at all, and that's kind of how Tom works."

From the renowned Alexander to the much-lauded Kundig, of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects. "From the time he did his sketch to the time we built it there was no change," Dow says of the architect. "He nailed it from the beginning. The only thing that was my idea was the size."

The structure is a small but daring piece of contemporary design in two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bath all surrounding a commanding poured-concrete fireplace. Underneath is a laundry room, garage and storage space. Each bedroom has one of the pivoting glass doors; there are five in the main living area.

"The window manufacturer does not build those windows," Dow says. "We did that in our shop. You have to be willing to take risks."

Such risk brings rewards: a 2007 National AIA Housing Award and a 2006 AIA Seattle Merit Award. And for Kundig, a coveted 2007 Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

This is not Jim Dow's first forest getaway. But this is different. This is about his head, his heart and his soul.

"Every single piece of wood in there is made from an old warehouse that I salvaged in Ballard across from Dish, where I've eaten breakfast for 10 years," he says.

"It's just an incredible place."

Rebecca Teagarden is associate editor for Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

The home is a showcase. The cabin a secret place; the most personal of projects. And architect Tom Kundig, of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, has a particular fondness for designing these nurturing spaces, calling them "architecture at its most elemental." He explains:

"A cabin is where all bets are off; it's very pure.

"Cabins are very intimate, very quiet, very peaceful places in the landscape. I grew up in one in Idaho."

And wherever they are, desert or beach, "They are sort of stripping away the cultural articles that sometimes a house can mean inside a city. They're almost primitive in a sense, in the way of meeting the primal needs we have as animals that have evolved."

Small, he says, is great. "I prefer it. In fact, one is about 200 square feet. I'm even doing a little cabin, sort of a fort, 160 to 180 square feet. When I do these lectures around the country, I actually use the cabin I grew up in, 300 square feet, that meets all architectural criteria. Something so light, so delicate and referencing the strength in a quiet, subtle way."


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