Modern living in Sitka:
Cutting edge at
the water's edge
A minimalist home with maximum views
Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Jason Shaffer
Chad and Danielle McGraw's stunning modern home perched on the shoreline in Sitka is almost as beautiful to look at as the view from its picture windows. Built by and lived in by the owners of a large commercial construction company, it is an unusual architectural departure for Sitka. But the man-made modern artistry on display inside the home and the natural beauty outside result in a home that is nothing less than magical.
The McGraws, who split their time between Alaska and a home in Oregon, hired Bend architect Vernon Sexton to help them achieve their idea of a mid-century modern home. "I liked his work and I liked that it's a two-person shop," says Chad. "Vernon does all the work himself."
"I was really excited to do a contemporary home," says Vernon who, because of Bend's strict design rules had not had the chance to do much in the way of modern design. "Chad had a really good concept of what he wanted and, because he's in construction, he was able to communicate that really well."
The design process – done long-distance – is a tribute to the relatively recent technological advances in design and communications. "We do everything on the computer with a 3D-based program," says Vernon, whose son and partner in the firm Ian, has a graphic arts degree and is the team's technology expert. "I had a topography map, so I was able to set the camera at a Continued On Page 77 certain elevation and look back where the house was going to go." Vernon then did a 3D drawing. "When you look at a photograph now," he says, "It looks exactly the same as the drawing. It's amazing."
The ability to go back and forth over the course of the design process is essential says Vernon. "The more feedback between the architect and the homeowner, the better," he says. "It's a partnership."
A slim lot and a slim margin for error
The site itself was a challenging one and the communication and experience that both men brought to the "partnership" turned out to be crucial. Because of the steep slope of the site, "Chad had to bring in fill and build up the land," says Vernon. In addition, a 12-foot-high retaining wall had to be built along the lot's back-edge.
But the challenges weren't strictly vertical. "It was a very tight, narrow site," says Vernon. "We were limited in terms of our footprint of the house." The resulting structure is a slender 35 by 110 feet. "
"It was difficult to fit a 3,800-square foot house onto the lot," says Chad. "Depth-wise it was a challenge to get everything to fit and to achieve a comfortable living space."
That Chad should gravitate toward the midcentury modern style of architecture seems natural, though it's an unusual presence in Sitka. It's a style that celebrates the inherent beauty of form, utility, and function. "The design is very simplistic with clean lines," he says. "Nothing is overstated." Dark wood accents throughout the house soften the interior and lend warmth to the sleek and minimal décor. "I have a tendency to lean towards the sterile," says Chad. "So with the interior I tried to be as modern as possible without being too narrowminded or eccentric."
"A lot of architectural styles depend upon artificial surfaces that hide how a room was built or what is holding up the roof," says Vernon. "Here the surfaces of the structure are integrated and exposed. You don't cover it up. When you look up you see exposed beams and decking. What you see is what you get." It's a case where form follows function, he adds. "It's almost Oriental in that way."
'Just glass and ocean'
The exterior of the home has a "modern Northwest" feel and the materials used reflect Chad's experience in, and taste for, commercial building. "The metal roofing, the commercial aluminum windows, the aluminum trim instead of wood," Chad says, "these commercial applications create the clean lines, and the aesthetic I was looking for."
The backside of the house is very private and "very minimalist," says Chad. And it doesn't reveal the dramatic impact of the view you get when you enter the house: 16 feet of glass and 180 degrees of ocean greet you immediately and breath-takingly. "You don't see any land when you walk in," says Chad. "Just glass and ocean."
White water, waves and whales
And it's not just any ocean view. The local volcano – Mt. Edgecumbe – is "smack dab in the middle," of the vista, says Chad. The McGraws can watch dramatic storms and white water crashing up against the rocks from the serene comfort of the living room. But best of all, is the view during herring season, says Chad. "It's the most captivating season. We get whales feeding within 30 yards of the house," he says. "We get to see them breach."
It's an intriguing contrast between the world on one side of the glass and the world on the other. Perhaps it takes the artistry of a craftsman, plus the sensibility of a fifth generation Sitkan to create a home that so beautifully marries the rough and rustic coastline with the refinement of modern architectural design.