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American Society of Landscape Architects


June 2005 Issue

For the Birds

Outside Seattle, a modern home sits as lightly as possible on the land and provides a refuge for birds and beasts and two people who love to watch them.

By Susan Hines

For the Birds
David Perry

With its curving concrete walls lending modern sculptural appeal, the Birdwatcher’s Residence near Seattle hardly seems the type of structure built by nature lovers—people we tend to associate with earth homes, straw bale construction, and geodesic domes. But despite its architectural flair, this house and its landscape unite to serve a single and very determined purpose—to allow the residents to live intimately with the land and the natural rhythms that govern it.

Driven by the vision of the owners, a couple retired from Seattle’s high-tech industry who currently devote themselves to their passions, among them bird-watching and art collecting, the Birdwatcher’s Residence confounded expectations from its inception. The landscape is by the 10-person Seattle office of Belt Collins, a 300-person firm based in Honolulu and known primarily for resort planning and design, while the house is the product of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, a local firm noted for its museum work. The collaboration is an unusual combination that makes sense only if you think carefully about it. And the owners put tremendous thought into every phase of their home’s design and construction. Their strong vision and full participation in the design process ensured that the Birdwatcher’s Residence pays constant tribute to its natural environment.

The owners searched three and a half months for the site. Located outside Seattle’s urban growth boundary, the five-acre property had been partially logged and was littered with rusty equipment and trash. Yet, meadow, wetlands, and woods survived the onslaught and the property’s three distinct ecosystems continued to provide refuge for a rich variety of wildlife and had the potential to nurture even more when restored.

Belt Collins came on board about halfway through construction, after the couple realized the “landscape issue” needed to be addressed soon. They had worked with a landscape architect on their former residence—a far more conventional home in a far more ordinary suburban setting. The couple was determined to avoid what the husband describes as the “Disneyland” look of flowerbeds and turf. “We wanted something natural that wouldn’t put a burden on the land,” the husband says. In fact, he was planning to say good-bye to his lawnmower on moving day—a parting that did indeed come to pass.

When the wife reported on Belt Collins’s expertise in “golfscaping,” her husband grew alarmed at the thought of getting a fairway or putting green. He calmed as his wife explained that the firm works with golf courses to design everything around the fairway and the greens to minimize maintenance and maximize the natural beauty of the setting. “It was a synergy,” the owners now say about their working relationship with the firm. “We knew what we wanted in terms of the concept, and we had several good ideas, but it was a real exchange of ideas.”

For Jerry Coburn, asla, Belt Collins’s lead landscape architect on the project, the Birdwatcher’s Residence was a chance to bring years of experience as a globetrotting designer and resort planner to bear on a unique residential project. Since its founding eight years ago, the Seattle office of the 50-year-old firm has responded to economic vagaries like the 1997 financial crisis in Asia—one of Belt Collins’s major markets—and the post-9/11 slump by proving its design flexibility.

Coburn says, “It was an educational process for our office to learn about bird science, to identify plant material that birds want to roost in or collect under, and to find vegetation that draws them in not only for food but also for protection.” He adds, “And, we didn’t have to do a lawn. When the clients told me that, I really wanted this project.”

The house that Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen designed for the property was situated to minimize damage to the landscape. The residence could have been sited much farther from the neighbors, but instead it was placed near the old logging road to minimize damage to the property, and the existing road was recycled as the entrance drive. During the design stage, the couple reduced the proposed square footage of the house, and their concerted efforts to protect the natural legacy of the site meant that only three trees were removed during construction. One of them—a safety hazard—would have had to come down anyway.

The owners wanted a basement. To keep the resulting dirt and the construction debris out of landfill, an earth sculpture was commissioned on the edge of the meadow adjacent to the house. “We had to do something with the dirt, and one of my pet peeves is a dump truck,” the husband says. “I see no sense in moving dirt around just for the sake of getting it off your property.”

Located near an established elk trail that skirts the meadow, the three rings of the earthwork provide a spot for deer and elk to bed down for the night in addition to hiding the wellhead. “When the lupine is in bloom in the meadow and on the hills [of the earthwork] it’s fabulous,” the husband says. “We’re trying to keep it as natural as possible, so we don’t come out here with our lawn chairs, but we do use it to observe nature.”

Neighboring deer and other animals don’t have access to the couple’s highly productive vegetable garden because it is incorporated into the design of the house. Located on a roof deck next to a second-story greenhouse, the roof garden is the husband’s clever solution to what could have been an insurmountable deer problem. When he first proposed the idea, his spouse blurted out, “That’s crazy!” In practice, however, gardening on the roof and in the adjacent greenhouse has been wonderful, she says. The dozen or so large fiberglass planters that contain 11.5 tons of soil enriched with material from nearby composting and worm bins are incredibly productive. “Last year, I froze 20 pounds of different varieties of green beans,” she says. “And that first hot year, I got over 70 pounds of tomatoes from just three containers.”

Even on the deck, efforts were made to minimize negative effects on the environment. “You see these pavers,” the husband points out to me. “Below you is about six to eight inches of air, then the real roof, so water falls and gets collected and becomes the source for the reflecting pool. We are recycling the water all the time.”

In fact, all rainwater is retained on site. And flow from neighboring properties near the entry to the residence is diverted to a retention pond. Designed around an existing big leaf maple, the drive encircles the pond, which serves as the focal point of the view from the entry to the road. Surrounded with rocks and planted with ornamental grasses, including blue oat grass, feather reed grass, and two varieties of fountain grass, this natural-looking water feature provides seasonal interest, too. Bulbs appear in the spring while lavender, sedum, and rudbeckia make for an extended show throughout the area’s long growing season. Just a few years after installation, the pond looks as if the drive were designed to accommodate it as much as the tree.

Part of Belt Collins’s efforts to heal the site included restoring the original drainage patterns where possible. Water from the retention pond is diverted through the meadow to a bioswale. Reestablishing drainage patterns was particularly important because the site is inundated with runoff from nearby properties. Despite the fact that rainfall had hit record lows in the months prior to Landscape Architecture’s late-winter visit, the pond still held ample water.

Most of the grading took place in areas near the entry road and house. “The circular drive and its interface with the meadow required subtle feathering to get it to blend back into the meadow,” Coburn notes. Pictures of the entry court taken during construction bear witness to the level of disturbance that construction wrought and make clear that restoring a natural appearance to areas immediately around the house was a significant part of the design challenge that Belt Collins faced.

At the rear of the house, on the forested side of the property, Belt Collins convinced the owners to “avoid big or heavy hardscaping in the interest of making the home and site blend.” As a result, meandering walkways were laid with gravel and scaled to forest path dimensions—the kind people or animals naturally would make as they travel the land. Ferns, bleeding heart, and more delicately textured ground covers ease the transition between forest and home. On the meadow side, the goal was to bring the field right up to the foundation. In a third viewshed, which contains the architect-designed horizontal reflecting pool, an area of naturalized grasses makes reference to nearby wetlands.

Belt Collins did not include an irrigation system in the plan—another aspect of the project that makes it interesting and unusual for Coburn because of the region’s dry summers. “People don’t think you need to have irrigation in Washington,” he notes. “But you really have to have a system unless you very carefully select the plants. I don’t have too many projects without irrigation.”

Restoration of the existing landscape involved mitigating the impact of invasive species, especially in areas previously disturbed by logging. The meadow is a case in point. Seeded with a 50/50 mix of native fescue and rye, the latter added to speed establishment, the renaturalized meadow requires little work other than tearing out blackberries. It has been mowed to simulate fire only once since seeding in fall 2001.

In an effort to overwhelm the blackberries and other noxious interlopers, the planting plan was ruled by a strong emphasis on natives, which Coburn estimates comprise 80 percent of the installed plants. To the existing tree stock of cedar, fir, hemlock, and maple, Belt Collins added seven western red cedars, used mainly for screening utilities and nearby houses. Thirty-five vine maples were planted, adding to the native tree canopy. Deciduous shrubs, including serviceberry, red huckleberry, and red elderberry, provide fresh bird food and seasonal interest. The primary understory growth of salal, fern, huckleberry, mahonia, and grasses was supplemented with a large planting of kinnikinick or bearberry—another excellent food source for birds—as well as additional salal and Oregon grape.

There are a few nonnative ornamental species, many planted for sentimental reasons. A family member provided a lilac, for example, and wisteria was planted on the large trellis perpendicular to the house. “We wanted to have some seasonality,” notes the husband, an East Coast transplant. “We thought one way to accomplish that was to have a deciduous vine on the trellis—when it blooms, it changes the whole house.” In summer, the wisteria provides some cooling green in an area of the concrete structure that captures the heat of the afternoon sun.

As the landscape neared completion, fallen logs were brought back in and set by hand around the pond and in other key areas. Snags for birds to land on were placed in and near water features and the new stormwater detention basins. “We went back and forth on how many snags to use,” Coburn says. Fearing that purchased snags could have been poached from natural landscapes or even derived from living trees, a decision was made to use only material available on site. A big windstorm in the fall of 2003 took down some trees on a nearby property and provided an additional source of snags. “I talked my neighbor into giving me some logs,” the husband reports. “I hauled them back here and placed them as naturally as possible.”

Maintenance of the installed landscape is minimal—two or three hours a month, according to the husband. “I come out here and I weed beds. Is that maintenance?” the wife asks. “I’m out here enjoying the sun and listening to the birds.”

Their shared emphasis on stewardship of the land inspires continuous efforts at restoration. “We wanted to do this in phases,” the husband reports. “If nothing else, I want to live here for a while to understand the rhythms of nature here.” Right now, the owners are researching nonchemical means of ridding a natural drainage swale of reed canary grass and establishing native willow in its place.

What about the birds? Ironically, the Birdwatcher’s Residence is something of a victim of its own success. As they have for many years, the owners participate in Cornell University’s Backyard Bird Count. So far they have counted close to 45 different species at their current home, among them three different species of woodpecker. Over the 19 years they lived at their previous home in the suburbs, the couple identified more birds, 72 species to be exact. “Of course, we have been here only a few years,” the wife admits with a smile. “But it is harder for us to determine how many birds are here because there is so much for them in the landscape that they don’t come to the feeders the way they did at our last place.”

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