Joe Herrin designs a glass cabin on Orcas Island

There are no interior walls except for the utility room on one end of the house and the guest rooms on the other.

By Rebecca Teagarden

WHAT YOU don’t see is what you get from Rysia and John’s home on the north shore of Orcas Island.

Rysia, an interior designer, and her husband, John, an engineer, fell hard for Orcas in 1981. Back when it was still one of those tune-in-turn-on-drop-out kind of islands. They bought their piece of it, 3 ½ acres, for around $300,000 and spent summers there, at water’s edge along the Georgia Strait in a small, modular home that came with.

Rysia, who has designed interiors for major corporate clients, spent the next two dozen years imagining her ideal island house; few walls, high ceilings, low-impact, energy-efficient, easy to maintain. And that is what you see here, 2,070 square feet of glass and Italian marble that, as a package, appears hardly there at all and glows like a home in one of heaven’s better neighborhoods.

"The Philip Johnson Glass House. We had photos of that house on the wall," says architect Joe Herrin of the inspiration. "You sit on the toilet and you’re looking out."

Simple. But simple isn’t easy. And this, most certainly, was not. For more than 1,000 years, the Lummi Indians used the land as a winter camp. There were artifacts (stones and shells made into tools), and the discovery barred any turning up of the earth. Also, the property sits in a flood zone. Any structure built there would need to be raised, yet (returning to Problem A) without digging.

But here the home sits. Carried from dream into reality by Herrin, a former co-worker, of Heliotrope Architects in Seattle and built by Orcas contractor Dave Shore of Dave Shore Construction. A mat-slab foundation (the concrete poured over the grass) with walls on the edges holds the house in a hover at 3 ½ feet. Glass walls dominate the long sides of the home that is just 28 feet wide: trees and meadow on one; driftwoody beach and, off in the distance, Canada on the other.

An ipe deck runs the length of the house on both sides. There are no interior walls except for the utility room on one end of the house and the guest rooms on the other. Living room, dining, kitchen open. Only opaque glass separating the kitchen and the master bedroom, sandwiching a pantry, walk-in closet and bathroom in between.

The green roof planted in red poppies reduces rainwater runoff. The rest is collected for irrigation. Rooftop solar-thermal collectors provide hot water both for drinking and for hydronic heating. Photovoltaic panels supplement electricity needs.

The home is racking up awards. In December the North Beach residence received a Best of the Year award from Interior Design Magazine. Also last year, American Institute of Architects chose it for a National Housing Award, sort of the Oscars of residential architecture. And in 2009 it received a Merit Award for Washington Architecture from Seattle AIA.

"Rysia and John are friends of mine, and I love it that they love it," Herrin says. "That’s the most important thing to me."

(via) Rebecca Teagarden writes about design and architecture for Pacific NW. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.


  1. Joe’s company is called Heliotrope… Very cool architectural firm in downtown Ballard…


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