2021 AIA Housing Awards: Townhomes by Wittman Estes

Tsuga Townhomes

Architect: Wittman Estes

Owner: Matt Wittman

Location: Seattle, Washington

Category:    One- and Two-Family Production Homes

Seattle’s continually escalating construction costs, among the highest globally and averaging more than $338 per square foot just two years ago, has prompted a glut of high-volume, low-quality housing. The rising costs have transformed many of the city’s neighborhoods into a sea of generic modern boxes, built using low-cost materials and left disconnected from the outdoors. This project helps resolve the paradox around low-cost and high-quality homes while delivering sustainable design.

The team relied on careful design for this three-unit urban infill project, completed at the cost of $185 per square foot. It cleverly maneuvered through complicated development restrictions and fit the three units on just over 5,000 square feet on a site designated an environmentally critical steep slope in Seattle’s Highland Park neighborhood.

“The design is restrained and well-detailed, and the cost is modest for the Seattle area.”- Jury comment

Serving as architect, client, and contractor for the project, the team envisioned it holistically, striving to transform the site into a dense and visually rich multifamily experience. Overlooking downtown Seattle and the Duwamish River, the area was the historic home of Chief Seattle and the Duwamish tribes. The three homes sit just four blocks from Highland Park Elementary school, which boasts one of the most diverse student populations in the city’s school district. Historically, the middle-income families who rely on the school have been housed in opaque apartment blocks with little to no connection to nature.

“The jury welcomed this market-rate development’s strong social approach,” noted the jury. “It is an excellent strategy for increasing density while respecting the scale of the neighborhood. The design is restrained and well-detailed, and the cost is modest for the Seattle area.”

The three dwellings are split between one main house along Highland Park Way and a duplex along 8th Avenue. The project derives its name from local western red hemlock, better known as Tsuga wood among the Salish people who have relied on it as a building material. Woodcraft and detailing using Tsuga wood and cedar are found both inside and out, recalling the handiwork of the Salish tribes and woodwork of Scandinavian settlers.

Shaping a healthy living environment and reducing energy use and costs were overarching design goals. The site plan includes a series of green roofs and water-harvesting bioretention planters that capture water and reduce runoff. All three homes have energy-efficient mechanical systems, such as on-demand water heaters and low-flow water fixtures. The team cleverly inserted the green roofs and terraces to provide subtle gradations between public and private, letting residents choose when to be seen or not.


Miranda Estes
Miranda Estes
Miranda Estes
Miranda Estes

Additional information

Structural Engineer: Joshua Welch Engineering

General Contractor: Wittman Estes

Landscape Architect: Wittman Estes


Ceara O’Leary, AIA (Chair), Detroit Collaborative Design Center, Detroit, MI

Allison Anderson, FAIA, unabridged Architecture, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Kelly Beamon, METROPOLIS, New York, NY

Alex Salazar, AIA, Salazar Architect, Portland, Oregon

Roberta Washington, FAIA, Roberta Washington Architects, New York, NY

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