by Pallavi MehraJun 22, 2022
In the densely forested hillside on Whidbey Island in Washington, architectural and design firm Mwworks has conceived a seasonal retreat shaped by modest vision, meticulous detailing and a deep understanding of the place – Whidbey Farm. Designed for a multi-generational family looking to revitalise their farmland for leisure and expansion, the natural hideaway humbly overlooks the bucolic scenery of fishing ponds and barns. The Seattle-based firm has cautiously camouflaged the holiday home among the surrounding Douglas firs “out of respect for turn-of-the-century the agricultural buildings located on this rural site,” informs Steve Mongill, Principal and co-founder of Mwworks.
The design of the Whidbey Island Farm Retreat has been carefully curated to ensure the creation of comfort-led spaces, correctly distributed in accordance to the programmatic requirements. Two rectilinear-pavilion like volumes separate the living and private quarters while the third volume functions as the guesthouse. The architects have deftly weaved each of these three volumes through the existing Douglas fir trees, paving way for natural courtyards. These courtyards of shrubs and ferns are defined by a low wall of locally sourced basalt stones that become the visual and physical link between the different volumes.
Mwworks also successfully tries to evoke a sense of nostalgia with the interiors of the Whidbey Island Farm Retreat that offer a warm and rustic appeal with the use of a palette of naturally weathered woods, concrete, locally quarried stone walls, deep oak window jambs, soft plaster walls, and black steel accents. The building celebrates the agricultural legacy of the site and with the use of low-maintenance exterior materials it also materialises the client’s vision to have a house that is “flexible, durable and reflects the layered history both of the site and of the family itself”.
Through the use of western red cedar wood for doors and siding and floor to ceiling glass windows, the house merges harmoniously within its surrounding context, creating an immersive experience for its owners - a senior couple, who wanted the house to be able to accommodate up to 20 people for summer barbeques, fishing retreats, and family gatherings with their three adult children, multiple teenage grandchildren and guests.
Whidbey Island Farm Retreat can be seen as a congruent influence of Mies’ Farnsworth House as it adopts a similar minimalist aesthetic and nurtures an intimate relation with the natural surroundings – allowing one to simultaneously enjoy the most immediate proximity to nature as well as the largest distance from it.
Acknowledging the built environment’s contribution to climate change, for Mwworks, conscious architecture is the only way forward. For the Whidbey Farm house, this meant challenging the culture of construction, emphasising the use of local materials, resources and technology. The red cedar and huckleberry basalt stone used for the dwelling were both locally sourced, require minimal maintenance, and age gracefully over time; the outcome of all rational parameters combined.
The large openable windows of the building passively exploit the site conditions, directing breezes from the pond to naturally ventilate the interiors – an effective strategy employed by the architects to reduce electricity use and costs. The windows are made using low emissivity glass in conjunction with an inert gas – argon. In addition to sealing the gaps between the window panes, argon gas more importantly serves to improve thermal insulation efficiency as it is denser than atmospheric air. The building is heated by a high efficiency gas boiler and a radiant system.
The interior doors and walls use cedar slabs uniquely handcrafted by the family patriarch – a doctor who spent his spare time carving panelled designs. Responding to this memory, Mwworks made an explicit connection between the past and present through the provision of new solid plank cedar in the master bedroom. To satisfy his former pastime, the planks would serve as a future carving project for the homeowner amid his pastoral duties. Incorporating the client’s personal history into the architecture not only breathes exclusivity into the project but allows the clients to be active collaborators in the design process.
Adhering to climate-proof construction, the house makes use of roofs designed to be flat and green to accommodate plantings if/when desired by the owners. The building envelope uses air barriers and spray foam air seals to ensure it exceeds the Passive House standards for airtightness. The architects also looked to give back to nature by employing circular principles promoting peaceful coexistence between the built structure and its natural setting. Any trees felled during construction were returned to the farm for lumbar or firewood, repurposing them in a similar way as nature. The Whidbey Farm clearly proves that designing responsibly “doesn’t need to look and feel like an experiment”.
Name: Whidbey Island Farm Retreat
Location: Whidbey Island, Washington, USA
Architect and Interior Design: Mwworks
General Contractor: Dovetail General Contractors
Structural Engineer: PCS Structural Solutions
Landscape Design: Kenneth Philp Landscape Architects
Mwworks Design Team: Steve Mongillo, Drew Shawver, Eric Walter, Briony Walker, Suzanne Stefan
(Text by Saamia Makharia, an intern at stirworld.com)