Many times, innovation is thought of as creating something completely new or...

MANY TIMES, innovation is thought of as creating something completely new or different. But usually, it’s taking something from somewhere else and ascribing it to a new situation. Whether inspiration came from grain silos or factories, the Modern movement did this with materials, fixtures and form since the early 20th century.

That tradition continues here with a house by Coates Design. Sustainable in technique and contemporary in style, the Coates project specified, for instance, lighting, windows and countertops that might remind you of a ship, a library or your seventh-grade science lab.

It’s these allusions that feed a frisson of surprise, challenging expectations of what residential design ought to be: “When I told my mom we were putting in a concrete kitchen counter, she said, ‘Concrete? You mean, like a sidewalk?’ ” to Matthew Coates’ chagrin.

Matthew and Ruth Coates designed and built much of this Bainbridge Island house they share. They hunted down or custom-fabricated on-site many of the materials and fixtures they wanted. Now the house is both workshop for their professional aspirations and symbol of their history together and commitment to sustainability.

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As architects who design primarily commercial buildings, the experience today enriches their perspective when creating for others: “Designers can easily lose sight of the fact that designing a house is inherently exciting — and stressful,” Ruth says. “I was just surprised that suddenly I was the one having a breakdown in a budget meeting.”

Sustaining ideals

The last time Matthew Coates designed a house, it involved spinach. That is, Coates specified spinach-powered photovoltaic panels concocted at MIT to crown the roof of his house design. The home’s entry last year won the Cradle2Cradle international design competition. Cradle2Cradle, inspired by environmentalist William McDonough’s book of the same name, commended the world’s sharpest cutting edge in sustainable design.

While the panels signified a wow factor of technology, they are barely available, if at all.

In contrast, Coates’ second house — the one he lives in — makes no flamboyant gesture. But it is sustainable and attainable. Commercial-grade windows include low-E insulated panels; all paint and carpeting is low-VOC.

Their first project together, the 2,080-square-foot home clearly delineates public and private spaces with a soaring, one-storied, open floor plan for living areas adjacent to a stacked, two-story private area with two bedrooms and two baths. In the three years it took to design and build the home, the couple lived in a small apartment in Winslow and fastidiously planned to accomplish ambitious goals: They poured their concrete kitchen countertops, as well as a concrete bathtub surround, themselves. They returned to the site daily after work or between jobs — Matthew took six months off at one point — to serve as their own general contractor.

“Five years ago, we bought this lot, and we had this enthusiasm you have when you don’t know how consuming your ideas will be,” Ruth says.

For instance, Matthew devoted a summer to raze three 90-year-old cedar trees on the lot to make room for the home’s footprint. He then milled those trees on site, labeled the planks and stacked them to dry. A year later, Ruth worked early hours so she could have time to hand-stain each cedar slice. Those beautiful pieces now line the house as siding.

The house was situated to leverage passive solar heating — the large window of the living area facing south, capped by an eave. Native plants, chosen and landscaped by the Coateses, grace their lot on the island’s southwest corner.

Inside, a passive water system heats the water as well as the poured-in-place concrete floor. The floor and the home’s framing with concrete masonry units, or concrete block, act as a heat sink to keep the house warmer in winter, cooler in summer. The one-acre lot cost $94,000 in 2000, and the Coateses estimate the home’s cost at $400,000, or about $160 a square foot, with design and half the construction done by themselves.

It was quite an undertaking for a young married couple.

Having met in a class at the University of Illinois, “we already had this foundation of working together,” Matthew says.

“You don’t take it personally if, say, I draw something, and you think it’s not working or vice versa,” Ruth adds. “We’re used to that. And we would do it again.”

Rosemarie Buchanan is a Seattle-area writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.