Daren Doss and Lisa Chadbourne knew they needed more space for their architecture practice, Chadbourne + Doss, but the high cost of suitable rentals...

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DAREN DOSS AND Lisa Chadbourne knew they needed more space for their architecture practice, Chadbourne + Doss, but the high cost of suitable rentals led them to a different approach: building a detached, two-story garage/studio next to their personal residence.

Taking advantage of an oversized lot and equity financing, they squeezed a modern structure adjacent to their 1910 Craftsman home in Seattle’s Central Area. Despite the frugal budget and overall restraint, or perhaps because of those factors, the small, flat-roofed building showcases the designers at their most creative.

The informal design sensibility is remarkably refined for a space built around low-tech, off-the-shelf components, exposed structure and industrial materials, including concrete, glass and steel. “There were a lot of experimenting and learning experiences,” says Chadbourne. “We like to say we try it on ourselves before using it for clients.”

Among the things they played with were materials and finishes. Inexpensive medium-density fiberboard (MDF) panels were used on the walls and staircase, for example, but rubbed with graphite powder to give them a dark, soft, mesmerizing appearance. Black metal was used for simple window seats and interior detailing as well as exterior cladding.

While such materials add variety and create a modern tone, the overall spatial conception is simple and generous: one large, rectangular room on each floor. The downstairs room stretches 36 feet from street to yard, and has a ceiling more than 9 feet tall. The airy space has a black concrete floor and serves as a conference room, fabrication workshop and gathering area for parties, like the one for 20 adults and 10 kids celebrating their daughter’s 1-year birthday. Such versatility of use was a key goal.

Built to work

Originally, Daren Doss and Lisa Chadbourne wanted to build a Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU). But changes to Seattle’s zoning codes to allow such units, dubbed backyard housing, are contentious and largely stalled. Doss and Chadbourne got tired of waiting. So they designed their garage/studio with an entry door that can accommodate a car, as required. With a stamp-sized bathroom, the current structure could be adapted to a living unit if the codes change. For now, this is what they put together:

Dimensions: 960-square-foot garage/studio, two stories, one 3/4 bath.

Exterior finish: Hardipanel, wood siding (cedar scrap finger-jointed and stained) and metal panels.

Heat: wood stove.

Landscaping: by City People’s, emphasizing groups of plants.

Cost: $125 per square foot construction cost, plus sweat equity.

Another consideration was natural light. They used clear and translucent materials to maximize “the glory and freshness,” in Wordsworth’s phrase. On the ground floor, light floods in on three sides from 8-foot-square metal-and-glass Dutch doors. The doors look big enough to be barn doors, and in fact they are. Lisa, who loves to scour the Internet for good deals and unusual materials, found the doors from a Kentucky firm specializing in horse farms.

Light was also foremost in their minds when they chose a new triple-ply translucent polycarbonate material, typically used for greenhouses, for one wall. Here it allows for diffuse white light while preserving privacy.

Upstairs was their major splurge away from strict economy, a custom-made skylight that would allow natural light down to bounce off one wall. Another bit of extra expense, but again a chance to try something they’d like to incorporate for clients, was the small living roof that adjoins the second floor. Looking out from the large studio/office window they see sedums and stones that recall an Asian garden. The pumice rocks are quite light despite appearances. They worked on the roof with Hadj Designs, which specializes in small-scale green roofs.

The real charm of this studio is not the individual elements, however, but the balance between the uncluttered, large spaces and the clean, rectilinear lines and patterns. With an unassuming black-and-white color scheme, they made the building a restrained backdrop for their books, architectural models and creative efforts. The cup is more half empty than full, with an implied invitation to create.

David Berger is a Seattle area writer who can be reached at dab20@aol.com. In June he was awarded an Espy Foundation residency for environmental writing. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.