[All images + photos by BUILD LLC]

BUILD recently broke ground on the Case Study House 2016, which means that the design is complete and the building permit has been issued. We began our Case Study House experiment back in 2012 and CSH 2016 will establish our third project in the series. The mile-marker of ground-breaking establishes an excellent opportunity to compare the design of this project with the previous studies. The conclusions are not only surprising, but they’re also beginning to inform the projects that we’re designing for clients.


Before we get into the comparison, it’s worth noting that our Case Study Houses all focus on a similar set of circumstances. Because the project series aims to provide densification in a rapidly growing city, each tackles a compact urban lot (CSH 2016 is a tidy 4,355 square feet). Because these projects are built for ourselves, they exclude the embellishments and adhere to cost-effective budgets. As we are modernists, these projects also demonstrate materials and methods of the current time. For these reasons, BUILD’s Case Study House series isn’t necessarily applicable anywhere and everywhere. For instance, the parameters would change dramatically on larger suburban or rural lots where there’s simply more buildable real estate within the setbacks of a typical lot.


One of the principles behind BUILD’s Case Study House project is the exploration and implementation of new design ideas. Because we are the end users of the product, it allows us to experiment with concepts and details that maybe too costly or time consuming to implement, at least now, for clients or the market in general. While this was a design generator on CSH 2016, this is also where things get interesting. The more we tried to push and pull the design ideas further from CSH 2012 and CSH 2014 projects, the stronger previous architectural systems reaffirmed themselves. While there are a host of differences between the separate Case Study Houses, what is becoming more significant are their similarities. As architects and builders, it illustrates a couple of possibilities: either we have a lack of imagination or there are key design systems that simply work better than others given the conditions. We think it’s the latter, and today’s post does a deep dive into the similar design threads among all three houses. We’ve broken the study down into five systems for design and we’re already starting to see these strategies influence the client-based projects here at BUILD.

By the time the setbacks and allowable lot coverage are taken into account for a compact urban lot, the buildable area could easily be limited to about 1,500 square feet. This is true for each of the BUILD Case Study Houses as the real estate we target is on the more cost-effective side. The 4,355 square foot CSH 2016 lot translates into 1,524 square feet of actual buildable area once the setbacks and lot coverage are deducted. Even if this buildable area were maximized, it’s not a generous amount of area for a residence designed for a family. This limited footprint is offset by building higher, which allows for rationally stacked floors, it saves a bit of real estate for the yard, and allows the house to access better daylight and views. The height limit in Seattle is 30’ for a flat roof structure which allows for a 3 story structure and a roof terrace if desired. Using this logic, the CSH 2016 keeps the footprint to 1,451 and the height to 27’ from average grade.


Early in design schematics, we tested the traditional configuration of common areas on the ground floor with bedrooms on the upper level, but, once again, it lost out to the benefits of the inverted floor plan. This reversal of functions allows the common living areas, where you’re spending the majority of time, to access maximum daylight and views. It also places the entertaining areas nearest the roof in the event that a rooftop terrace is desired. This arrangement pushes the bedroom spaces to the 2nd level and keeps the garage and, in this case, the accessory dwelling unit on the ground floor. The challenge with this configuration is to create an entry sequence that delivers people to the common areas without them feeling like they just climbed two flights of stairs. Similar to CSH 2014, the first flight of stairs is integrated into the landscaping of the front door approach. The exterior entry sequence focuses on layered terraces, paths, and focal points to take emphasis off the navigation of the stairs themselves. Once inside, it’s only a straight run of stairs to the common areas. For compact urban lots requiring taller structures, the inverted floor plan continues to optimize the plan layout with the site and environmental factors.


The number one question from neighborhood spectators of the CSH 2016 has been: “Is the new house going to be boxy?” Whether people appreciate the honesty or are threatened by the modernism, our answer is always the same. It’s not just going to look boxy, it is, truly, a box. A thoughtfully designed, well-articulated box. Simply put, boxes work best for interior spaces. Gable and hip roofs create awkward second floor spaces, necessitate dormers to offer less awkward second floor spaces, and exclude the possibility of rooftop terraces. Another important principle of the Case Study Houses is to create a model for housing that will last the entire 21st century, and creating practical, usable spaces is crucial to this goal. Boxes are better than triangles in this application and we arrive at this conclusion time and again in our Case Study Houses as well as the bulk of our work for clients.


Every BUILD Case Study House has been designed with the mindset of durability and cost-effectiveness. This typically results in an envelope assembled of highly resistant but low maintenance materials like the standing seam metal used on CSH 2011 or the aluminum panels employed on CSH 2014. These keep the bulk of the structures water-tight, lessen the amount of maintenance required, and create a handsome exterior geometry. At the same time, we like to introduce warmer, more textured materials where they matter most. The approach and entry to the home are key areas to do so as the inhabitants and visitors are able to get up close to these materials and even touch them. The CSH 2016 uses white and silver aluminum rainscreen panels for the majority of the skin, while the entry area switches to a light-gray stained cedar to welcome visitors. This cedar requires more maintenance than the panels, but the work is confined to a very specific portion of the exterior.


The same strategy is apparent at the interior where walls are kept simple and clean, allowing the warmth and texture of the solid oak floor to become the personality of the space.

Numerous plan layouts for the CSH 2016 were explored for the living room, kitchen, and dining room, however the most effective relationship was nearly identical to the CSH 2014. This configuration places the kitchen as the hinge point between the living and dining rooms with the dining room being nearest the south, with the kitchen behind. This allows the dining room to open up to a south facing terrace in both Case Study Houses while the kitchen has a direct relationship with both the dining room and living room. The remaining quadrant is dedicated to circulation space and a powder room. An additional home office volume is introduced into the CSH 2016. This office location allows a close and desirable proximity to the common areas, while maintaining a sightline to the front entry.

[Left: CSH 2016, Right: CSH 2014]

Our hypothesis is that these five design strategies have emerged in the Case Study House series not by coincidence or convenience, but because they best address the design challenges of urban lots. Like any good scientific process, we’ll continue to analyze the results of these explorations, refine our design ideas, and apply them to the next case study. Until then, stay tuned for some deep-dives into accessory dwelling units and the construction process of Case Study House 2016.

Cheers from Team BUILD