A Summer-Only Retreat Becomes a Year-Round Getaway


It’s a magical setting,” says the owner of a contemporary waterfront retreat on Orcas Island. The property has been in his family for nearly five decades, and he has many fond memories of summers spent in the much smaller, more rustic cabin that once stood on the site. When he and his wife took ownership of the property, they decided to replace the cabin with a more updated home. “We wanted to create something with additional space that also took better advantage of the light and views,” the wife says.

For the undertaking, the couple turned to architect Joseph Herrin. “They were interested in an island vernacular, a Cape Cod style for the Northwest,” Herrin explains, pointing to his creation—a cedar-clad two-story barn-style structure that encompasses the bedrooms and bathrooms. Attached to it is a contemporary one-story structure that houses a great room with an expansive water vista. “Virtually every room in the house has a view, even though the short width of the house faces the sea,” the architect explains. “The living and dining space is one story so the second-floor bedrooms look over the top of it.”

According to builder Jonathan White, the project’s simplicity belies its complexity. “Larger homes have details per square foot while smaller homes like this have details per square inch,” White explains, noting the frame of the custom front door, which is separated by a quarter-inch reveal from wood paneling that was precisely milled from local fir trees. Fir was also used for the hardwood floors and custom built-in cabinetry that can be found in the home. “There wasn’t a lot of furniture to buy,” says Herrin, who worked with the owner on the built-ins and main floor furnishings; designer Bonnie Ward of Designward, Inc. stepped in to help the owner select window treatments and fabrics for pillows and window seats. Herrin designed the dining room table and a cocktail table, which were both milled from a madrona tree that fell on the property before construction commenced. “The distinctions between furnishings and cabinetry blur and become irrelevant,” Herrin says. “It’s just one work.”

To likewise blur the distinctions between interior and exterior, Herrin carried the cedar siding on the barn-like structure into the interior of the great room, where it creates a dramatic accent wall for the living and dining areas. Nearby, a pair of rusted steel structural columns supports a long plank that extends past the glass walls to the exterior on both sides. “Connecting the indoors and outdoors in this way is a classic device,” Herrin says. “Frank Lloyd Wright did it, and he likely got it from traditional Japanese architecture. It goes back centuries.”

Decks on both sides lead to walkways paved with natural beach gravel that landscape designer Steve Stanzione selected to tie in to the waterfront. On the side facing the sea, Stanzione incorporated a variegated bluestone patio with a fire pit. “It’s a neutral material that blends in quite well with the surroundings,” says Stanzione, who also added evergreens, fir, cypress and other foliage to the existing landscape.

Although the project went smoothly and even wrapped up two months earlier than expected, the crew faced many site constraints. Perhaps most unforeseen was the ancient Lummi Nation fire pit that they found beneath the old cottage. Before construction could proceed, the pit had to be carefully excavated, capped with concrete, and then cataloged with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Unpredicted as it was, Herrin was not necessarily surprised by the discovery. “Human beings have found this to be a pretty sweet place to hang out for at least 1,500 years,” Herrin says.

The owners are no exception. “I’ve never known anyone who has visited and not fallen in love with this island,” the wife says. “Before, we’d close it up in October and not be able to go back until April or May. Now we’re able to spend time here year-round, and we couldn’t be happier.”