TODAY, GENTLE NATURE-LOVERS, we consider our native killdeer. Perhaps you know this skinny-stilted bird as that deceitful little squawker who pulls out the high-drama “Ow! My leg!” distraction ploy when its nest is threatened.
Perhaps you do not know — yet — exactly how the killdeer nests.
Architect Matt Wittman does. “Unlike most birds, the killdeer doesn’t bring outside vegetation to build its nest; it pulls away the existing brush, burrowing into the existing forest … They create an edge,” he says — on open ground, maybe in gravel, maybe only a teensy little depression lined with a few nearby stones.
Lightly. Simply. With minimum disruption, fuss and materials, the killdeer crafts a family home.
Pat and John Troth, Ph.D.-level nature-lovers, have done the same along Hood Canal. Pat works in the environmental field, and John is a forester and nature photographer. When they turned to Wittman, of Wittman Estes Architecture + Landscape, to update, expand and re-envision their “dark and opaque” 1962 cedar cabin on a woodsy, high-bank bluff, Wittman says, “They asked for an indoor-outdoor retreat that would allow them to be closer to the land” — practically, visually and spiritually.
Our tenderly nesting killdeer inspired the design, and the intent, of the Troths’ brilliantly integrated Hood Cliff Retreat, three single-story volumes with bird-viewing windows, clerestories and elevated decks: the newly modern and warmly tactile 20-by-20-foot original space; a cozy new bedroom and bath addition, connected by a new glass entry vestibule; and a separate bed-and-bath bunkhouse for visiting family and friends. (The Troths’ grown children, Ashley and John, perhaps not surprisingly, are natural-resource scientists. The family dog, Maggie, is a rescue beagle.)
Even if you didn’t know the inspiration for Hood Cliff Retreat, even if you didn’t know anything about our inspiring killdeer, a sense of “nest” emanates from the initial entry. As intended. “We mounded the landscape,” says Wittman. “When you come down the driveway, you feel protected. In between the two spaces [the bunkhouse and the main cabin], there’s a courtyard within the landscape. … Many architects want to build the thing in the middle. We want to build on the edges so you can feel the nature.”
This connection of nature to architecture, of birds to buildings, forged in earnest once Wittman asked whether the Troths had “a few pictures” of the killdeer, Pat says. “When my husband is out here, he is out here to take pictures of the birds.”
So yes. He had a few. They sang to Wittman.
“I grew up in the outdoors; it shapes you. You have a feeling for the weather and the trees. The birds and the wildlife on the site and all around it are a real presence. That’s what I love: putting people in contact with plants and animals,” Wittman says. “It really resonated when we saw the killdeer photos. The way they’re nestled into the site and close to the ground — the killdeer finds its materials right around it — reminds me how we reclaimed the original cedar: building in an organic way with nature, but also special to the Troth family.”
Its special nature extends all the way to the big city. Hood Cliff Retreat earned an AIA Seattle Award of Merit, and Design in Public’s upcoming Seattle Design Festival cites it as an especially eloquent (yet soft-spoken) example of this year’s festival theme: “balance.”
“What really struck me the most is that both the client and the architect had a keen understanding of place, and were thinking specifically about nature and the bird community and how they build their homes, and really took that responsiveness as a cue for how they wanted the house to sit on the site,” says Debra Webb, former director of Design in Public. “As humans, we tend to take over nature rather than respond to it and really work with it and look for equilibrium and that balance of the planet and the natural environment with human needs. That they were paying attention to the killdeer and put that as a prominence, that’s inspiring.”
As is the retreat’s balance of old and new. “We reused the original footprint and foundation,” Wittman says. “Reclaimed beams and siding from the original cabin were repurposed as countertops and interior cladding.” A reclaimed cast-iron tub anchors the new bathroom. The bunkhouse holds a dresser from the original cabin (there’s another piece in the main entry), and some of its thick cedar boards, but now on the inside.
“The kids said, ‘Mom, don’t get rid of everything old,’ ” says Pat. “I kept some of the cabin stuff. It’s the spirit of it.”
There’s a lot of inspired spirit at Hood Cliff Retreat: of connection, of family, of a sweet little bird that balances “nesting” with “nature” — gently, considerately, reverently.
“What we send forth to the future has been a lifelong passion of mine,” says Pat. “I would say that my husband is similarly minded. I feel very respectful of this place.”