Tagged: studio zerbey

studio zerbey / hilltop residence

It’s not that often that I write a blog post (yep, Kyle here), but this house is one I’ve been wanting to share for a while. But first, a quick note – things have changed a lot for us in the past year with the birth of our daughter and both of us leaving our jobs to start Studio Zerbey. We admit that the blog has been neglected and I’m guessing Bailey feels the same, even though he now gets to spend ALL DAY, EVERY DAY with us. Just wanted to say thanks to those who have stayed with us in the thin times!

Although this blog will always include posts about our house (and Bailey and Avery), we hope to write more about our professional work as architects. We still have plenty of chezerbey projects to complete, but most of our “design time” these days is spent working for our clients.

3-Studio Zerbey -Exterior 1

Like this one, a new house in the mid-century Hilltop neighborhood east of Seattle. I started the project three years ago with my former employer, Balance Associates, but then the project went on hiatus for a bit. When I joined Lauren last year, the project was transferred to Studio Zerbey and construction is scheduled to begin in a few months.

Every project starts with the client and the building site. These clients are highly organized and began their project by presenting me with a 40+ page booklet about architecture that they admired with detailed descriptions of what they did and didn’t like. Not only were they organized, but they have also been easy to work with. Win, Win.

Unfortunately, their building site was a problem from the beginning and the most difficult site I’ve ever designed for (and there have been some doozies). It was the last empty lot in the architecturally significant Hilltop community in Bellevue, Washington and it was undeveloped for a reason. Actually, at least two previous owners (with their architects) had failed to build on this lot after either being turned down for permits or rejected by the community review board! This site had almost every problem you could think of including a steep slope, wetland and a stream. To make matters worse we also had to fit a septic system on the site and keep it away from the wetland and stream. Really, we spent the first two years working with the planning department to get several variances and permits. The process required detailed surveys and hiring a wetland consultant, geotechnical engineer, structural engineer and septic designer. After a drawn-out and mostly frustrating process we finally came up with a design that made everyone happy and were issued our permits! (As a part of the project we’ll be improving the site by removing invasive species and doing some new native plantings, while maintaining the wetland and stream.)

The Hilltop community is like something I’ve never seen before which deserves a brief introduction of its own. This early 1950’s photo below is of some of the founders who planned the community (notice Mt Rainier in the background).

Black and white images from UW Libraries Digital Collection, as linked in this Seattle Times article.

original planners

The photo below is from around 1955 and shows homes under construction and the simple circular drive through the neighborhood.

aerial view

Hilltop (as it’s commonly called) is comprised of 40 very carefully planned building sites (of larger than average size for the area) and they all have very well-preserved views. This old hand-drafted site plan of a “Tree-View Map” below is still used today by the community review board to approve remodels or in our singular case, new construction. The basic layout of the community is a circular drive with the highest elevations inside the circle. Most of the homes I’ve visited in the development also have nature trails that lead from one house to the next.

small site map

Most of the original homes were designed by architects who would later be known as pioneers of the Pacific Northwest modern style including, but not limited to, Perry Johanson, Fred Bassetti, Paul Hayden Kirk, Roland Terry, John Morse, and Wendell Lovett. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone on this list, but you get the idea. The opportunity to design a house in a neighborhood already brimming with unique homes is something we did not take lightly.

On two separate occasions, I was required to present my designs to the community review board. There were around 20 or so neighbors at each of the meetings and it was obvious that they cared deeply about our design and how it could impact their lives. On top of the permitting requirements, the community has its own very stringent design guidelines, which limit building height and placement on the site, not to mention an unofficial aesthetic judgment. I was relieved when they approved our design after the second meeting!

So, onto the design already…if it’s not completely obvious, these are renderings that I created with my fancy new computer and not the actual building. We’re in the process of interviewing general contractors and will start construction this Spring! The background photos are actual views from and around the site. Did I mention that the site has panoramic views of Lake Washington, Mercer Island, and parts of downtown Seattle?

2-Studio Zerbey -Exterior 2

The tall Douglas Fir tree in many of these exterior views has been affectionately named Earl by the clients. Thanks to the Hilltop community for preserving this particular tree. Earl is awesome.

The north side of the house shown below was required to be held up off the ground to meet setback requirements from the septic field. It’s an unconventional building solution but it works. Materials here include dark grey stained cedar siding, Parklex panels, and architectural concrete.

3-north cropped-LANDSCAPE

In keeping with the community design, we opted for wood windows. I know, I know…maintenance you say. Well, we’re only using them were we have very large overhangs and they’ll be treated with a durable finish. The rest of the house that does not have generous roof overhangs will have metal clad wood windows, so metal on the outside and wood on the inside.

1-Studio Zerbey -Exterior 1

Entry courtyard below, it’s really the only yard space we can claim because of the wetland, stream, steep slope, and septic.

4-Studio Zerbey -Exterior 4

Here are three renderings of the same view. I originally just did the day and night shot for the client and then they sent me the background photo in the third image, on a day when the clouds were especially low.

5-Studio Zerbey -Interior 1

6-Studio Zerbey -Interior 2

house in the clouds

Below are the floor plans, which show that the house is relatively modest in size and will be one of the smallest in the neighborhood.



View from the main deck into the great room:

7-Studio Zerbey -Interior 3

View from the great room looking at the kitchen:

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Another view of the kitchen:

9-Studio Zerbey -Interior 5

Custom fireplace and living space (Yeah, that’s me and Bailey hanging out on the deck. Maybe.):

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Master bathroom with lots of overhead natural light:

11-Studio Zerbey -Interior 7

Master bedroom looking out towards Mercer Island and Lake Washington:

12-Studio Zerbey -Interior 8

If you’re interested in reading more about the Hilltop community you should check out these articles by Dean Stahl of the Seattle Times and Kurt Clark of the Bellevue PI. A big thanks to them for keeping up with the history and to my clients for being so patient and great to work with. We’re excited for construction to begin!

his + hers home offices

Living in a small house is one thing, but working in a small house is quite another. But hey, if anyone can figure out a good way to balance the two it should be a couple of architects, right?


Yeah. In terms of how our business is structured, we first established two basic rules: maintain our own projects and our own work spaces. (This is key!) Although there are only two of us, we more or less operate in the same way as a larger firm. Kyle and I both act as our own project managers, but share resources and collaborate when there’s a time crunch or we need to bounce ideas off each other. We even have Monday morning staff meetings to discuss what’s going on for that week. (Ok, sometimes we’re in our pajamas.)

Here’s another thing, we don’t divide everything 50/50. During the remodel process we learned that we work better together if tasks are allocated by what a person is interested in or good at, rather than “you install that half of the tile and I’ll do the other half”. (The same applies to doing laundry or paying bills.) It’s not for everyone, but for us it means we’re a lot more efficient when it comes to getting house projects done. Now that we’re small business owners, we apply the same strategy to Studio Zerbey.

Focusing on each of our strengths means we also have different needs when it comes to workspaces. For now, I’m working part-time and taking care of Avery, so it made sense for Kyle to take over the loft and for me to have a more mobile work station (aka the dining room table). Originally we thought about setting up my office in the basement, but the idea of schlepping around baby gear and toys (plus the baby) made that idea less appealing. We keep all of our shared resources in the loft (printers, office supplies, books, etc.) and so far it’s working out well. Everything is wifi so if I need to print something I just send it off and by the time I climb up the loft ladder it’s sitting there waiting for me. With this setup, we’re not staring over each other’s shoulders but we can easily ask each other questions or listen to the same music. (Small house win!)

And I like that we each have our own identities: Kyle with his PC and Aeron and me with my MacBook and Eames. Ok, we’re both terribly cliché, but in our own special ways.

office space

Over the last few weeks, when friends and family have asked us how we’re doing I usually say, “we’re busy, but it’s a good busy”. And it’s true – each day starts early and ends late (and sometimes there’s a middle of the night shift), but it feels good.

And we’re making progress. Like ordering business cards! We went with a simple and clean design (thank you Anna!) and had them printed through Moo after hearing good reviews on Door Sixteen. Really, I was impressed with the whole process. Their website is well-designed and easy to navigate, the ordering process was straight-forward (we went with regular business cards printed on recycled paper) and we received them days before their estimated delivery date. (And gah, I’m such a sucker for clever packaging!) Since Anna’s blog referred me to Moo, I was able to save an extra 10% off my order and Anna gets $7.50 credited to her account. (If you want to get 10% off using my Refer a Friend link, here ya go.)

We’ve also been ordering various reference books and office supplies. (I love ReBinder products from Seattle company Guided Products, who offer more sustainable alternatives to vinyl.)

As far as office space, well…that’s still a work in progress. Although I was originally going to work in the loft, we’ve decided that one of the keys to effectively working from home will be for us each to have our own spaces. For now, I’ll be splitting my time between working and taking care of Avery, so it makes sense for me to have a more accessible office space. Even though we had plans to move the TV down to the basement and make that a guest/den area, we’re now thinking it will be a guest/office/play room. We’ll leave the sofa bed where it’s at, but add a work surface along the wall where the TV will eventually go. (Ooh! Do I smell a trip to IKEA? I think so. I haven’t been since Avery was born. WITHDRAWAL.)

Anyhow. The loft is currently an explosion of architecture, but we’ll be getting that space (and the basement room) in order over the next several weeks. (So y’know, it will look like a better organized explosion of architecture.) Now that we are a company of two, we’re also working through the logistics of computers, software, file sharing and data backup. Living in Seattle, we’re fortunate to have several techie friends to help us navigate those options.

We’re still adjusting to this new work-life balance, but so far, so good.

studio zerbey / plus one

Well, not a lot of dull moments in the Zerbey house lately.

Yup, Studio Zerbey just doubled in size.

When I formed Studio Zerbey, we knew there was the possibility that Kyle and I might join forces at some point and well, here we are! This was certainly a big decision (Kyle had been at his previous firm for over seven years and had strong ties to the people he worked with) and something we gave considerable thought to – weighing the pros and cons, the risks and the advantages.

Initially, we had reservations about working together. Sure, we like each other (a lot, actually) but we also thought it was important to have our individual work lives. Then, during one of those nights when Avery was sleeping peacefully and I was not…it hit me – we’ve been working together for years. The week after our first date (11 years ago!) we teamed up on a studio project and continued the trend throughout school (although sometimes it was swapping help on structures homework for proofreading a Baroque term paper). In the 8 years that we’ve lived in Seattle, we’ve critiqued our portfolios, coached each other through the Architect Registration Exams and most importantly – acted as both architect and general contractor for our home remodel.

We can do this.

Making the decision to be self-employeed small business owners (with a newborn!) was not an easy one, but we feel confident it’s the right one. We’ll have to redefine what our own family/work balance will be, but I love the idea that Kyle will now get to spend more time with Avery. (Bailey, on the other hand, is still confused about the new baby and why he can no longer spend his days sleeping on the off-limits couch.) We know that this next year will be a time of focus and hard work, but we’re no strangers to that lifestyle either.

Kyle has some exciting projects that he designed and is bringing to Studio Zerbey, including a new house in the Mid-Century Modern Hilltop neighborhood east of Seattle:

A new home near Carmel, California:

And (in collaboration with Balance Associates) wrapping up construction for a new home in Missoula, Montana:

Want to see more? Check out the new and improved Studio Zerbey website! (Thank you Anna!)

Finally, a big thank you to everyone in our lives (especially our clients!) for your support and encouragement along the way. Kyle and I are both so excited and motivated about this new adventure and we look forward to sharing it with you.

Studio Zerbey – officially open for business!

studio zerbey / 1201 boulder

In the last few years and especially since the announcement of Studio Zerbey, I’ve received several inquiries from friends and fellow blog readers about design services. Typically, they’re homeowners who want to tackle their own remodel but need a little guidance first. The only glitch – they usually don’t live in Seattle. So, a deal-breaker huh?


Unlike others in the design field who can easily work with clients all over the world, architects tend to keep things local. And for good reason – when working with physical and permanent structures, having an architect who is nearby makes a lot of sense. But it’s not totally necessary. (In fact, most of mine and Kyle’s experience is working with clients on projects outside of Seattle.) The truth is, not everyone has access to architects in their town or sometimes it’s hard to find a right fit. When it comes to your own home, design is an incredibly personal process and it’s important to work with someone who understands what the goals are and can help you achieve them.

There is also the common assumption that architecture can only be afforded by a certain few and well, that’s simply not true. Part of my drive to start Studio Zerbey was to debunk this myth and show how architects can play an important role on projects of all shapes and sizes.

Case in point – earlier this year, I had the pleasure of working with a couple in Colorado on their recently purchased 1940’s home. I think the process is a good example of how an architect (oh, like myself…) can work remotely and provide non-traditional services.

The homeowners, Leslie and John, bought this cute little home in Boulder last year. Although it certainly has a lot of charm (both inside and out), the layout didn’t make sense for the way they currently live. (In fact, one of the reasons they contacted me was because their floor plan was so similar to our original layout.) They also knew that the house required non-cosmetic updates (some more immediate than others) and that those updates could have an impact on future design changes. Like many homeowners, they plan on remodeling via a combination of DIY and hiring the work out. They also plan on living in the home during the remodel so the idea of phasing became very important.

The challenge – come up with a holistic design direction that could be broken up into phases as time and budget allow.

Even though Leslie snapped the above photos with her phone shortly after moving in, it helped me realize that 1) they already have an eye for good design and 2) we could push things in a more modern direction. (Woohoo!)

After some initial discussions, Leslie and John sent me additional information and photos of their home so that I could put together a proposal. For their immediate purposes, they needed help with establishing a general design direction (mostly in the way of floor plan layouts) as well as a game plan for how the project could be phased and what materials and products they might use.

In a typical remodel, the architect goes to the home and takes “as-built” measurements of everything in order to verify existing conditions and create digital drawings. For this project, instead of traveling to Boulder the clients and I agreed to handle everything remotely. So with the help of photos, videos, real estate documents and the homeowners themselves, I was able to put together this floor plan showing their existing layout (the blank dimension strings were a homework assignment for Leslie and John to help me verify that I had drawn the plan accurately):

It’s very similar to our original layout, isn’t it? (Their house is a smidge bigger, allowing that second smaller bedroom.) Leslie and John also have a full (but mostly unfinished) daylit basement, which allows some additional flexibility and a great space for staging or temporary living during the remodel process.

After collecting lots of information and producing baseline as-built drawings, my next step was to come up with several schematic layout options. Armed with trace paper and pencils, I came up with 6 different layouts based on both the needs of the clients as well as practical elements, like existing load-bearing walls and window and plumbing locations. In a way, I approached the process as if it were my own home.

Like chezerbey, their home is modest in size so every square inch counts. Primarily, they needed more functional bedrooms and a living/dining/kitchen area that was more cohesive. They also wanted a better connection to the basement and more efficient storage throughout (especially for coats and boots in snowy Boulder).

After reviewing the different layouts and discussing them back and forth via email and phone conferences, Leslie and John narrowed it down to one scheme that could be explored further (yes, we dubbed it the “chezerbey” scheme). Although this scheme involves more dramatic changes, it was the one that made the most sense for the way they’ll use the space. (They were also ok with losing one of the dedicated bedrooms since they still have their entire basement to utilize.) While everyone was on board with the general direction, we wanted to experiment a bit more with the central knuckle of the home and how a small office could be incorporated next to a new master bathroom.

These two variations also show (because of their existing roof form) how the ceiling could be vaulted over the living/flex zone or the kitchen/dining zone. The challenge with taking down walls and opening things up is that you lose that precious real estate for furniture. That’s why, like in our own house, I proposed a stair cabinet or “fauxdenza” (thanks Anna!) to help make up for the reduction in wall space. Another element that I love (and wish we had in our house!) is the full wall of storage in the kitchen. The two variations show that this could be divided up any numbers of ways depending on what the needs are (all pantry or a mix of storage and display space for example). Finally, while having some type of mudroom at the entry was critical, we played with whether this included a bench with cubbies and exposed hooks or something more like a coat closet.

After a bit more discussion, the two options were ultimately combined to create the final floor plan you see above. Although no square footage was added to the home, reconfiguring the spaces achieved a number of things:

  • More efficient use of storage – lots of affordable built-ins and no more weird closets.
  • More openness and visual connection.
  • A flex room that could be used as a guest room, tv room or cozy nook (I love that the fireplace is in that room!)
  • A visual connection from the kitchen to the backyard and more opportunities for morning light to fill the space.
  • A modest yet more efficient master bedroom.
  • A more functional bathroom that acts like a master but is accessible to guests (there is also a second bathroom in the basement).
  • A central stair that will connect to the future finished basement, making it feel less detached from the rest of the home.
  • An open office nook (that could be closed off if more privacy is needed).
  • Like our home, we also played with the idea of adding skylights to allow more natural light and take advantage of their southern exposure.
  • Because of their masonry exterior, we kept existing window locations and sizes in mind during the design process (messing with masonry = $$$). The final scheme adds new windows off the back of the house and one new one in the living area. By only adding a few new windows and in locations where they were most needed, we were able to avoid any unnecessary patching of the stone facade.
  • Finally, because replacing the original wood windows is high on their priority list, I helped Leslie and John come up with a strategy for how they could have that work done first without negatively impacting future projects on the inside of the house. (We’ve also started a conversation about different basement layouts and a potential pre-fab garage/shop in the backyard.)

    Working with Leslie and John has been a great experience and cemented my desire to help other homeowners with their own funky layouts and design challenges. If you think Studio Zerbey could help you out, let’s talk!