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:

8-Studio Zerbey -Interior 4

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.):

10-Studio Zerbey -Interior 6

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!


39 Responses to “studio zerbey / hilltop residence”

  1. Isabelle says:

    Nice to hear from you again and a beautiful post you wrote. Could feel the tension and difficulties attached to this project but also the pride and happiness to have conquered the challenges. WELL DONE!!!!! While reading along the first part, I felt like: Is he talking about Zurich city council? 😉 And after a first overview on the house plans, I felt and saw a strong Aalto handwriting, because of the way the windows are “created” and wood is used. We are/ were planning very similar windows above our kitchen and closets and also such a headlight (or how do you call the window in the roof?). Very nice. Is this going to be a “residence” or a weekend house? I am asking because I found the kitchen layout very nice (no tall and only a few upper cupboards – so I guess European style fridge under the counter – which made it seem rather “small” for a normal family house. I think you deserve well to be listed among these famous architects who designed and built in this hilltop area. THANKS for sharing.

    • Kyle Zerbey says:

      Well good morning Isabelle in Zurich. I would agree that Scandinavian architecture, including Aalto’s, has had an effect on Pacific Northwest Modernism. It’s a going to be their full time residence. There’s a very cool back-story about the clients who live only a couple miles away from the building site in their “starter house” right. They’ve been walking by the building site for about 12 years with dreams of someday being able to afford to buy the lot and hire an architect. They watched all the previous sales of the property from owner to owner trying to build on the lot so it was an emotional roller coaster until one day it came for sale again and the previous owner was so frustrated with the lot they sold it quickly to my clients. I’ll be adding “headlight” to my architectural vocabulary;) here we call it a skylight. Regarding the kitchen, the full height 48 inch wide refrigerator and pull-out pantries are actually built into the brown wood wall to the right of the island (which you can see in the 4th image from the bottom). It was designed to be incognito and so the frig and pantries will have the same wood finish as the surrounding wall. Thanks for your compliments;)

  2. Hannah says:

    Wow, that is amazing! You are incredibly talented – and what an honour for the owners to be able to build and live on the last plot of a place like that. Congratulations for getting to the building stage, it sounds like a challenge. Good luck, I’d love to see pics when it’s built!


    • Kyle Zerbey says:

      Hi Hannah, yes, lucky indeed, you should read my response I just posted to the comment above about how the owners longed after this piece of property for 12 years before being able to snag it. Yes we’re over the hump which feels great. Of course will post photos during and after construction.

  3. Bibiana Silveira says:

    Wow guys, this is amazing! Would love to call this place home.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Wow, this is great! I noticed you guys haven’t been blogging as much lately (understandably) but this post made the wait more than worthwhile! I hope you continue to blog about your home but posts like this are enjoyed and appreciated as well. 🙂

    • Kyle Zerbey says:

      Hi Stephanie,

      Yes we have a long list of chezerbey projects to do but not much time to do them now! Being self-employed with Avery has changed our lives. Thinking about hiring some help 🙂

  5. katie says:

    if you ever need another architect at studio zerbey… i live in st louis, but am willing to commute. and i do have 2 goldens that bailey could hang out with….

    seriously, what a great project/site/client! sometimes the greatest solutions come from the most difficult challenges, which it sounds like you’ve have plenty of with this site. i really enjoy how efficient the spaces are, and how much attention you have in the details. and the views… wow.

    please keep us posted on the construction. meanwhile, i will go back to “designing” an airline ticket counter layout for the 12th time. 🙂

  6. mariane says:

    Congratulations you guys! It is so nice you get to design a house for this neighbourhood. I love your design.

  7. hjc says:

    My goodness but you have mad skills! Thank you for sharing – this is fabulous (and I see magazine spreads in the future!).

  8. Heather says:

    It’s really stunning, Kyle. Cheers.

  9. Robynn Polansky says:

    Great blog post, but what does Lauren think? And where’s Bailey and Avery? Just kidding! I learned so much! Not only are you a talented architect, but I think you would be great at speaking events or teaching.

  10. Kyle Zerbey says:

    haha, well Lauren did edit out some of my more candid statements;) Bailey is in one of the renderings with me on the deck, Avery is not old enough to be in renderings yet and besides she would steal the show from the architecture. Thanks Robynn, I was a teaching assistant in College for design studio and was an occasional lecturer on how to keep an architectural journal. If only I had more time…

  11. Louise says:

    And this is why I want to become an architect – I just have to graduate high school and go through 7+ years of university first!

  12. Chris says:

    Seriously awesome house, of course, but my favorite part might be that there is actually a room labeled “man cave” on the plans.

    • Kyle Zerbey says:

      well the room doesn’t have any windows and it has been claimed by the husband;) originally he wanted the whole basement but then was relegated to the back corner

  13. amy h says:

    What an amazing house — and view! The plan really is excellent though. I love seeing and hearing about the process.

  14. dewofthedesert says:

    Amazing! Almost 3 years of development is a A LOT of waiting and work. I guess residential projects can be challenging like that. Quick question: what rendering program did you use?

  15. Joy @ OSS says:

    Absolutely gorgeous. I love the different solutions you came up for it. Well worth the time and effort!

  16. POB says:

    i think there are 2 dream jobs for a seattle architect…….a big budget san juan islands cabin, and a hill top house (which is less likely). so congrats on landing this.

    this also reminds me how much i wish seattle had a MCM neighborhood within the city limits.

  17. Brandon says:

    Really strong work- you guys crushed it. I am confused by the north elevation rendering though- feels like it is looking straight south to the north wall but then at the west edge the perspective shifts? Maybe I’m not seeing it correctly. The horizontal cut you have in the wall there is very dramatic but it feels like this rendering is misleading as you would see more of the interior of that master porch beyond- right? Sorry to nitpick. Love the project- congrats.

  18. Kyle Zerbey says:

    Hi Brandon, took me a couple times reading this but now I understand what you’re saying. That rendering is not a 2D elevation, although most of the drawing gives that impression as the camera view point is 90 degrees perpendicular to the north wall. It’s actually a 1 point perspective, so all lines perpendicular to that north wall converge to the same vanishing point. The horizontal cut is the only place in that drawing which doesn’t present itself as flat 2D elevation but it is actually correct;) Thanks for the compliments.

  19. Shauna says:

    Fantastic house. I just love the overhangs, the views. I live in France, but I grew up in that area, and return each summer. Glad you can combat invasive species and re-introduce natives, well done! Quick question–I’ve always wondered how architects deal with all the rain on those flattish roofs. Is there some special technique? I should hope the neighbourhood likes your plan–it’s a class act.

    • Kyle Zerbey says:

      ahhh, we miss France, Where in France are you? Lauren and I spent a summer there when we were in college, had an apartment in Versailles for a month, travelling out from there every day, usually taking the yellow line to Paris. Then went to Italy and Spain for the second month, lots of travel sketches and journaling to remember the experiences. To answer your question, those flat roofs actually have a 1/4″ per foot slope to help drain water to the scuppers and downspouts, the scuppers I designed have built in overflow so if the downspouts become overworked the roof doesn’t get full of water. The downspouts are located and sized for diameter based on local rainfall. From there the water on this site goes to a “lateral dispersion trench” designed by our civil engineer. The water gets filtered and re-distributed back into the site eventually finding it’s way to the stream so the watershed is un-uninterrupted as possible. As you know in Seattle it never actually rains that hard, just a light constant sprinkle:) Bonjour!

  20. Shoua says:

    Is that a tub I see outside on the master bedroom deck?

  21. maja says:

    This house is a total dream boat— what my house dreams of being when it grows up! Congratulations on a job well done. Also, that tree zone map is a work of art!

  22. delane says:

    What an amazing house!

    Oh perchance to dream!

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  23. Christina says:

    Oh this is just fabulous! What an elegant solution to such a difficult situation. I have a question about the built-ins in the bedroom. I have been dreaming of doing something similar to this in my own mater bedroom but seem to be stuck by the logistics. Will you be designing the exact layout and specs for this? Will you be hiring a local custom cabinet maker to build this? I’m not exactly sure where to start in my own home, so I would appreciate any information on how you might tackle this storage solution. Thanks!

    • Kyle Zerbey says:

      Hi Christina,

      Yes I’ll design the layout specs for the cabinets with the clients. Usually after we’re done designing any cabinet maker might have a few comments or suggestions to make. They will be custom cabinets so the options are limitless. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  24. Catherine says:

    Thanks for.sharing all hose awesome pictures you put together – apart from the fact that they look like they were pretty hard work to create… I think it’s going to be a gorgeous house!!
    Would love to read more posts like this one, where you guys share what outside projects you’re working – as well as.the at home.projects.
    What fantastic views your clients will have. I just love that they might actually we above the clouds in certain weather!!!

  25. Alice says:

    Oh wow, I think the house is big, not small! 🙂 The surroundings look amazing and the house too, it looks very much like my dream house. I hope you’ll share more of this on the blog, I would love to see the actual pics from the area and the house. If the clients approve of course.

    Thanks for sharing!

  26. Amalina says:

    What was the cost to build per square foot?

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