Architect James Steel teams with his builder dad to create a contemporary aging-in-place home for both parents.

Share story

NO PRESSURE, KIDS, but this happy Father’s Day, Bruce Steel has a glorious new hilltop home designed by his architect son. Which makes us rethink this plaid-tie gift bag just a teensy bit.

In all fairness, James Steel designed this home for both of his parents — mom Gloria, too — and, in the ultimate father-son bonding project, in true collaboration with his builder/developer dad.

“I took him a cocktail napkin and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Bruce says.

“My dad has a very strong vision of what he wants,” says James, principal of Steel Architects. “I was thinking what he would think.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The universal first thought: Bruce and Gloria’s previous home, in Gig Harbor, had turned threatening.

“They had to navigate steep stairs and a bridge over a creek just to get to the front door,” James says. “This (new) house was designed around the idea of aging in place. It’s 2,800 square feet, all on one level, minimizing barriers as they grow older.”

Even better, it’s in Tacoma — and Tacoma is home.

“We wanted to get back here, closer to family,” Gloria says.

And now, the Steels live in a meticulously thought-out, true family home mere blocks from three of their children, including James (the fourth lives in Seattle); less than a mile from Bruce’s childhood home; and half a mile from his office.

“We couldn’t resist the property,” Bruce says. “This location is so perfect.”

And goodness — those views.

Architect James Steel worked with his parents, Bruce and Gloria Steel, to design this 2,800-square-foot Pacific Northwest contemporary home on a hilltop in Tacoma. Because it’s intended to help them age in place, James says, “It’s really important that it’s all on a single level.” The main portion of the home has a shed roof; the secondary wing has a low-slope gable to minimize view impact.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Architect James Steel worked with his parents, Bruce and Gloria Steel, to design this 2,800-square-foot Pacific Northwest contemporary home on a hilltop in Tacoma. Because it’s intended to help them age in place, James says, “It’s really important that it’s all on a single level.” The main portion of the home has a shed roof; the secondary wing has a low-slope gable to minimize view impact. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

“The unique site is at the top of a steep bluff overlooking Old Town Tacoma and Commencement Bay,” James says. “On clear days, one can see from Mount Baker to Mount Rainier.”

Now, he means. Before, the site’s original home, a 1940s two-story relic with aluminum siding, basically turned its metallic back to the stunning scenery. The garage had the best vantage point.

“We maximized the views by laying out the home such that rooms that were used every day are aligned on the view side: living, dining, kitchen and main bedroom suite,” James says — these make up the main wing, or “the core of the house”; there’s also a second, back wing, with two more bedrooms, a guest bathroom, and mechanical and utility rooms.

The den is “meant to be more intimate than the living room,” says architect James Steel. “It’s not a see-through fireplace; it just mirrors the other one. The windows project out to bring the scale down and make the room more intimate.” Gloria Steel says this is her favorite room. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
The den is “meant to be more intimate than the living room,” says architect James Steel. “It’s not a see-through fireplace; it just mirrors the other one. The windows project out to bring the scale down and make the room more intimate.” Gloria Steel says this is her favorite room. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Over the three-year process, the home’s design evolved from traditional to contemporary, Gloria says: stone, glass, huge windows, and lots and lots of wood. James calls it “minimalist, but with a certain amount of nostalgia, Northwest contemporary with history, midcentury modernism with Northwest craftsmanship.”

Familial familiarity, not unexpectedly, informed a few key design decisions. James knew, for example, that his mom practices the flute in the laundry room — “an odd habit,” he says, but a longtime one (“You’re right there to fold laundry when it’s done,” Gloria explains) — so her secluded, southern-facing office/laundry area leaves room for a music stand, and a musical courtesy. “I can close two doors so (Bruce) can’t complain too much about the high notes,” she says.

Outside, James collaborated with Los Angeles landscape architect Ryan Gutierrez of GSLA Studio to design a spa with a retractable cover, possibly knowing his dad pretty well by this point. “It’s the funniest thing; we use it all the time,” Bruce says. “I’d never had a hot tub. But James designed this, and it’s the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world.”

This happy Father’s Day, Bruce is pleased, indeed — and very, very proud of his architect son.

“He did a terrific job,” Bruce says. “This is the most complicated house I’ve ever built. James was here hours and hours every day with a tape measure, watching over everyone. It was a lot of effort on everyone’s part. It was worth it. We love it here.”