Sheri Olson grew up in Arizona, knowing from an early age she wanted to be an architect. She went on to earn a master of science-advanced architectural design degree from Columbia University, which led in a roundabout way to a multiyear career as an architecture writer.
Sheri Olson grew up in Arizona, knowing from an early age she wanted to be an architect. She went on to earn a master of science-advanced architectural design degree from Columbia University, which led in a roundabout way to a multiyear career as an architecture writer. She was Architectural Record’s Seattle-based contributing editor from 1997 to 2004, and architecture columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (2001-04). Olson also produced books that focus on two local architecture firms. She established her own design business, Olson Architects, in 2004, the same year she was elected to the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows. She served on the Seattle Design Commission from 2004-06. I spoke with her as she, her architect husband, Phil Klinkon, and their son, Owen, were preparing to move into their new home in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. This is the first project Olson has designed and built from the ground up.
Q: You’re in a long-established neighborhood here. What led you to choose it for a new house?
A: What I love about Queen Anne is that downtown is close, I can walk to my grocery store, and I think there are seven coffee shops within walking distance. The house we found was structurally unstable, so we didn’t feel bad losing it; basically, you touched the foundation and it turned to powder. We weren’t sure we wanted to build a new house; we weren’t sure we could afford it. We came up with some initial ideas. Rachele Turnbull, our project manager with Clark Construction, priced them for us, and we decided to go for it.
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Q: What style of house did you live in before?
A: We had a Dutch Colonial and another of more modern design.
Q: What makes this a good house for your family?
A: The simplicity and openness of our house does not abide clutter, so the design provides a way for us to deal with it. For example, a small, well-organized room near the front door handles all the stuff that comes through the front door every day. In exchange, we get a home that is visually tranquil and feels peaceful even when life isn’t.
Q: And this particular design style?
A: I’d call this a modern house, not a contemporary. Here’s a difference: In a contemporary, they wouldn’t have made the walls so extreme. But here, there are three main parallel walls in the site, and you are measuring all the decisions against them. We had to do a lot of tricks because of the three-wall idea, which defines the different zones in the house. The first is the entry and circulation thing — we really don’t have other walls between the three main walls, but the ceilings go from 9 feet to 10 feet as you move into the living room and it opens up. You get the sense of the house connecting, front and back. We used a steel frame connecting to the foundation for shear strength. But really, this is about space and light.
Q: What are some important things you considered when designing this house?
A: We want to live here as long as we can, or until we need assisted living, so I designed it so it’ll be easy to care for. A house should be specific enough in its program that there are spaces that feel defined but are flexible enough to adjust to different uses.
Q: What’s your definition of a good house for the Northwest?
A: One that fits a family but also challenges them architecturally. In my work, it’s all about the cool quality of our light. Rather than fight it with saturated colors, I’d play up its luminescence with a minimal material palette of white and gray. A direct physical connection to the outdoors is also critical. It’s not enough to look out a window; you need to be able to walk outside.
Q: Has writing about architecture been useful in your own design practice?
A: What was interesting to me as a writer was getting to see how all those different architects work, so I could see what I liked. Here, my budget is my word count and my husband is my editor who says: Can’t we take another thousand out? My son is starting to write, and I ask him: What are you really trying to say? There are some pretty simple things I’m saying with this house — the physical connection to the outside, and the quality of life in the house. We want to be able to open things up and be able to breathe fresh air. This house is very specific. I was really thinking about the spaces.
Q: You’re now walking around in a structure you must have thought about for a long time. How does that feel?
A: One thing that bugs me is people say, ‘Oh, you’re an architect, you’re doing your dream house.’ Well, I never had a dream in mind. I knew what I wanted, but not this fully realized something — probably because what I like to do is site-specific.
Q: Everyone has dreams. Does nostalgia enter into this at all?
A: No . . . I grew up in a suburb of Phoenix, and I’m not nostalgic for stucco. When I was really young — probably in the third grade — I knew I wanted to be an architect. When I was in high school I entered this house-design competition the AIA sponsored. I found the boards for it the other day and, you know, it looks a lot like this.
Q: That’s fascinating.
A: That’s weird.
Dean Stahl is a Seattle writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.