EVEN BEFORE Rick Sundberg responds to the knock, the story of the venerable architect’s Leschi home is told right there at the front door. It is an old thing and a new thing all at once: a late-19th-century Japanese treasury door set with glass panels. United and framed by steel, these elements make for a new and larger door.
“The whole house is usually in a state of flux,” is how Sundberg begins the conversation. Even passers-by can see his latest work, the front of the home completely altered, a new steel fence, driveway and entry.
“This originally was our starter house, and now it may be our finisher. I’m not given to moving.”
Nearly 40 years ago, Rick and Sharon Sundberg lived in an old Anhalt courtyard apartment on Capitol Hill, a place he remembers fondly. In 1976 they built their 1,205-square-foot contemporary on an empty lot across the street from Lake Washington. “When we first built this house we had a mortgage for $32,000, and my mom loaned us the money for the lot,” says Rick.
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He did most of the construction.
Today there is a movement to build smaller and smarter. The architect will have none of it: “Well, that’s all we could afford; let’s cut to the chase.”
Sharon recalls its advantages. “Because it was small, we had to totally interact. We had to solve problems.”
The Sundbergs raised four kids here, in a place that over the remodels grew to a still-modest 1,750 square feet. There are two rooms near the front door (once bedrooms), behind light-filtering frosted-glass doors. There’s a powder here and, down the hall, the master suite.
Sweeping travertine stairs the color of sand lead to the limestone floor of the open living space: kitchen, living, dining, office space (some years), decks.
“When I talk about changes to Sharon as the client, then nice things happen,” Rick says.
The 1970s brought the circular skylight. “That was where my drawing board was. I wanted to take that out, but the kids said, ‘No, that’s all that’s left of the original house.’ ”
In the 1980s he changed the stairs (they were straight) and the deck. “We moved the fireplace around a lot, too.”
The 1990s were consumed with work: as a partner with Olson Sundberg Architects, the reworking of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle University’s School of Law. Later, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. More.
The new century brought big changes all around. “I think we started whacking this end of the house apart. We had fantasies of how big of a kitchen and office we could make for Sharon.”
It also found Rick forming a new firm, Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects. Daughter Mika, now an architect, joined four years ago.
Time passes. The stairs got another remaking. “We really needed a handrail.” Rick had a knee replaced, but he says, “It’s so our guests who drank too much wouldn’t fall down the steps and die.”
A good portion of the deck has been conscripted to become an alcove. Here is a small seating area and the most recent home for the fireplace, now surrounded by blackened steel sliders, storage for the trappings of dinner with company.
The architect is 71 now, but work here remains unfinished. Like a lot of us, he would like a larger bathroom, “and I’ve often fantasized about a studio in the back of the house.
“The house is a representation of our changing tastes. I’m solving problems I didn’t know how to solve. I’m the slowest designer who ever worked. I like to sit on things until people yell at me.
“I’m still a thinker, I guess.”
Rebecca Teagarden writes about architecture and design for Pacific NW magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.