Case Study: Academy Highlands by Risa Boyer Architecture

Designing a full-time residence for retirees can be particularly rewarding for architects. By the time most clients reach that milestone, their habits and hobbies are well formed, and they know exactly what they want from their home. Satisfaction can come from taking the design in unusual directions, because the brief is typically liberated from formulas for bedroom count, private and public zones, and even resale value.

Risa Boyer’s older clients found their forever homeplace about 10 minutes from downtown Bellingham, in the hills overlooking Lake Whatcom. They were living in Portland and had come up empty in their search for a property that felt remote but was close to civilization. While visiting Bellingham they fell in love with this 20-acre site, about an hour and a half from Seattle and 30 minutes from Vancouver, British Columbia. “They were taken with the amazing view and being surrounded by trees,” says Risa, AIA. 

Its design grew out of the land’s contours and the clients’ desire for multifunctional studio space. The couple—he is a musician; she is a metal artist who formerly worked out of their garage—wanted a one-story house with space for art shows and entertaining. On the verdant plot, they built a two-part house that hinges along the natural ridgeline and elegantly enhances the way they occupy the house and site. With its board-formed concrete site walls, weathered steel planters, stained cedar siding, and see-through carport and terrace, it is all but invisible amid the lush Northwest vegetation. The commodious carport joins a canted studio on the left with the bar-shaped house on the right. The studio was designed to accommodate large, mobile steel panels that the client uses to display her work. “She sets up art gallery walls with them and wanted to roll those out into the carport for shows,” Risa says. “The idea was that the carport could be a multipurpose space. They also use it for entertaining.”

Double Visions

If the home’s rectilinear layout seems straightforward, it’s the handling of materials and details that elevates the design. The continuous standing seam metal roof has a 1½:12 pitch toward the view. It narrows to a jaunty angle as it spans the outdoor terrace between the carport and house, before popping up into a clerestory over the main living space. Visitors arriving at the glassy entryway can see straight through the house to a postcard view of the lake and hills through floor-to-ceiling windows along the rear. This main room, presided over by a board-formed concrete fireplace, contains the open kitchen, dining, and living areas. To the right of the foyer is a closet-lined corridor leading to two bedrooms and the primary suite at the far end of the house. 

A home’s fit-out can be ultra-specific when clients are freed from their professional lives. Both like to cook, and side-by-side gas and induction cooktops under a single vent hood let them indulge their individual preferences. Additionally, there is a high-temperature oven for his pizza-making pursuits and a second oven for her baking. Rather than installing a traditional dishwasher, the wife requested a dishwashing room. “She was involved in commercial kitchen design and managed kitchens for big restaurants, so she loves a commercial dishwashing setup,” Risa says. “We created a room for it off the kitchen with a commercial dishwasher. They also store a lot of glassware there because they entertain so much.”

Down the hall in the private realm, the first bedroom has sound-dampened acoustics and doubles as his music room. “It’s as far from the primary bedroom as we could get it in this small floor plan,” Risa says. “They don’t have a ton of guests so felt fine having a shared bath between the guest room and music room.” Along the hallway, built-in floor-to-ceiling cabinetry takes care of their storage needs, including kitchen accoutrements and cases of wine that were formerly kept in their basement. 

Under the low-slope roof, the primary suite feels both intimate and expansive. The bedroom and bath have wall-height glass that opens to a private deck with an outdoor shower, and a northwest-facing clerestory brings soft light into the watery-blue-tiled bathroom. There, a sunken tub has a view into the trees and beyond. “We sunk the tub to get it out of the way and have it feel integrated,” Risa says. “She enjoys the Japanese ritual of washing her feet before she goes to bed and wanted to sit down and do that without having to climb over a bathtub.” 

Spirited Away

At the request of the owners, the house has a modern yet moody feel. Its wood tones and organic textures were inspired by the surrounding trees. These include tongue-in-groove cedar siding and clear cedar ceilings that continue outside on the soffits and carport. A local wood shop fabricated the white oak casework and the kitchen cabinets made of prefinished Shinnoki. Soapstone and brushed stainless steel countertops and a blackened steel vent hood reinforce the earthy-refined vibe, as do the radiant-heated concrete floors and cast concrete fireplace. “The fireplace was originally drawn as a ground CMU block façade, but the homeowner really liked the look of board-formed concrete,” says builder Jerry Richmond. “He showed up every morning and wire brushed the wood to pop the grain.” In the primary bathroom, terrazzo tile lends a polished touch to the sunken tub, along with glazed ceramic wall tiles.

Meticulous construction yielded a taut building envelope that hides the roof framing in a 12-inch cavity. “The top of the clerestory glazing goes right up to the roof in the main room,” Jerry says. “Using steel and putting the window headers in the roof diaphragm allowed us to run the windows into the ceiling, so it looks like the glass is supporting the ceiling. The main living area is almost all steel framing and contains a moment frame for shear, because there’s so much glazing.”

Passive strategies were employed to keep the house cool and supply all its water needs. Deep overhangs shade the interiors in summer, and four 5,000-gallon tanks collect the more than 60,000 gallons of rainwater the roof sheds each year. They are buried in the woods beyond the primary bedroom. “Because of the shallow bedrock we had to do a creative septic system as well,” Risa says. “A Glendon BioFilter system sits above grade and has piles of sand that plants can grow over, so it’s hidden away in the woods.” In addition, a required fire truck turnaround in the acid-etched concrete driveway provides space for guest parking.

The house is a deeply personal reflection of the couple’s creative ethos. “They feel it’s their sanctuary and don’t need to travel,” the architect says. “Having both space for her to do her artwork and him to do his music, it feels like they’ve got what they need up there, but having the proximity to town is really nice too.”

Academy Highlands

Bellingham, Washington

Architect: Risa Boyer, AIA, principal in charge, Risa Boyer Architecture, Portland, Oregon

Builder: Jerry Richmond, Indigo Enterprises Northwest, Bellingham, Washington

Cabinetmaker: Northwest Woodslayer, Bellingham, Washington

Engineer: Grummel Engineering, Portland, Oregon

Project size: 3,307 square feet

Site size: 20 acres

Construction cost: $485 per square foot

Photography: Jeremy Bittermann Photography

Cabinetry: Shinnoki Ivory Oak

Cooktop: Miele 

Countertops: Barroca soapstone and Caesarstone quartz

Entry doors and hardware: Kolbe

Exterior cladding: Cedar T&G

Faucets: Hansgrohe, Blanco

Home theater: Creston

Lighting: Tom Dixon Melt Pendant, Lotus LEDs, Sonneman, Modern Forms, WAC

Range: BlueStar

Refrigerator: Sub-Zero

Sinks: Elkay, Duravit

Toilets: Duravit

Wall oven: Wolf

Window shading system: Crestron

Windows/Window Wall Systems: Kolbe