Among the latest to be attracted to the diversity of Seattle's University Way Northeast are architect/engineer Kevin Eckert and his wife, Erika, an artist.

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Architects at Home

Among the latest to be attracted to the diversity of Seattle’s University Way Northeast are architect/engineer Kevin Eckert and his wife, Erika, an artist. They live with their two children in a mixed-use building he and colleagues built on the north end of The Ave, as this street of grit and polish is known.

Eckert, who has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Kansas, arrived in Seattle in the mid-1990s. After working as an engineer for three years, he started BUILD LLC Architecture + Design in 1999 from his VW Vanagon. In 2001, friend and architect Andrew van Leeuwen joined as a partner and they shared a Pioneer Square office, but the Nisqually earthquake soon forced them out. As the firm grew and shrank, it moved to Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and finally to the University District.

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In 2007, Eckert and van Leeuwen formed a development arm to design and construct the four-story Park Modern building. Eckert and family live in one town home, van Leeuwen and his wife in the other, and BUILD’s three-person staff occupies one of three street-level commercial spaces. Ten condominiums round out the project.

Q: Your development is in the spirit of the new Seattle — commercial below, residential above, in a neighborhood slated for higher density. What makes these living spaces unusual?

A: The amount of light you get. The front-to-back layout lets you get light from east and west. I like the very public feel with the stacking up of the urban fabric — though there are not really that many cars coming down The Ave. I like contrasting that with the single-family homes and territorial views in the other directions. This is still kind of on the outskirts of the city, yet you have every type of ethnic food, ethnic person, students, professionals.

Q: What are the advantages of living here?

A: You don’t need a car. You have the conveniences of the neighborhood. By building 12 residences, we were able to get more people good stuff — from countertops to cupboards and closet fittings, windows and radiant heat. This cost about $145 a square foot to build, whereas custom homes in Seattle are around $300 a square foot for the same quality.

Q: What about fees?

A: Fees end up being about $600 a month for this 1,900-square-foot unit. That sounds like a lot, but it covers most everything except individual power costs. Most of the money goes toward long-term reserves to replace the roof, decks and window seals. Some goes toward regular maintenance, such as cleaning graffiti. It takes care of the grass I don’t have to mow.

Q: The city requires the facade to be varied in a commercial building. Given the restrictions, how hard was it to make this one visually pleasing?

A: We handled it with big glass expanses and recessed decks on the front. That opened up the wood tone and gave it depth. The facade itself shifts, with the vertical pieces out a few inches, the horizontal pieces out a few inches. You read the different planes that have an interaction going on. We recessed the garage opening and painted it black. The landscape screen and the elevator wall break the mass up more. That was plenty going on for a 74-foot-wide building to satisfy the modulation guideline for the design-review board.

Q: How difficult was the design-review process?

A: I think the gap between our first city design meeting and our permit was more than 14 months. There were a number of unexpected things to work out that added hundreds of hours of work to redo plans, but we made it happen.

Q: Does that inspire you to shift your focus to single-family homes?

A: Well, we do those. Single-family homes are easier, technically, but this city is pretty much out of home sites. We’ve put 12 families here on a site smaller than some single-family homes. And according to the mayor, we’re going to need tens of thousands of housing units to deal with density. At the same time, there are many buildings on the tail end of their useful life that are going to come down in five or 10 years. So if you are mid-niche developers, you continue wanting to work in this way. Q: When you were in architecture school, is this how you envisioned living?

A: My dream in school was a home in a rustic setting, but while living in Denmark during an undergrad program I realized what good urban living provides. I discovered that Danes live in a better, industrial-design way — from door handles on up.

Q: How easy was it to translate that aesthetic to the Northwest?

A: It’s not a big leap, culturally. The focus is on more texture in homes, which brings warmth, and on low energy use. The climate is similar, so the love of natural light is a similar drive.

Q: Does a rustic retreat still attract you?

A: Well, we do have a family place to go to. Friends and clients have rural cabins we’ve used. Central Oregon is still pretty rustic, so we get out and cycle in the high desert.

Q: Where did the company name come from?

A: We may be one of the last generalists. We called ourselves BUILD because before we started this we watched so many projects get started, maybe go to groundbreaking and then die. Our profession isn’t always good at the follow-through; we’ve almost removed ourselves from it. I like the conceptual side, but I like to actually produce something. If I’ve handed off the project and there’s a problem, I want to be the one there to try to solve the problem. Here, we are architect/owner/builder. It’s an old-fashioned way of doing things — kind of a throwback. That’s where the real magic is for us.

Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.