Moving Through the Landscape

Published in Portland Monthly, January 2010 (link)

On a frigid winter evening, after the sun has dipped behind the trees, Tim Butler heads out for a bike ride. Shedding his daytime financial-analyst apparel in favor of cycling garb, he traverses the rainy streets for an hour or two before heading home for the night. His wife, Sue, one of the top cyclists in the world, makes dinner; she took a three-hour bicycle ride earlier in the day and has her suitcases packed in preparation for yet another race over the weekend. Eighteen bicycles, all Cannondales except for a single Litespeed, are lined up in the garage. The Butlers discuss recent rides and flat tires while they eat. The couple lives and breathes on two wheels, so it comes as no surprise that they built their home around their shared obsession.

“We were running out of space at our condo, and we had overtaken the whole communal boiler room with our bikes,” Sue explains of their impetus to build a house. “And coming home from cyclocross races, we’d traipse upstairs in muddy clothes to use the community washing machines.” So the two enlisted the help of Path Architecture, a local firm headed by Ben Kaiser and Corey Martin, to create a home that not only evokes their love of the outdoors but also meets their need to restore both bodies and bicycles.

Kaiser and Martin, also avid cyclists whom the Butlers initially met during a Canadian mountain-bike race, innately understood what the couple wanted. “Biking is all about the experience of moving through a landscape,” says Martin. “The love of that is the foundation of our work.” To allow the Butlers to see beyond their neighbors’ backyards, much of the house is oriented around manipulated views. The site itself is only 44 feet wide, more than 5 feet narrower than a standard lot. To compensate for the lack of width, and also to maximize vistas, the architects built the house to three stories—as tall as city code allows—and topped it with a sedum-planted roof deck where the couple sleeps on balmy nights.

Inside are carefully positioned floor-to-ceiling panes of glass, all left unfettered by coverings or shades, with the exception of an exterior sliding-wood louver system that lets in light in the winter and filters summer rays when the sun is hot. The placement of every window has been considered—the long vertical pane of glass in the master shower that lets the morning sun wash in; the expansive, lofted bedroom windows that provide views of the surrounding treetops while maintaining the couple’s privacy; a low window in the entry that filters light in at an upward angle; a living room wall of tall windows that looks to the towers of downtown and the mountain ridges beyond. Even on the rainiest of days, the Butlers never feel far from the outdoors.

Built by contractor David R. Rush, the home’s contours also connect it to the environment. “Pacific Northwest barns, with old, dark cedar walls and concrete ground floors, inspired the form of the house,” says Martin, pointing to the custom cedar channel siding. A cedar fence that wraps its way around the lot is echoed by the interior entry wall, made of the same cedar. “Literally, you’re blurring inside and out,” Martin explains. The second and third floors sit delicately atop a ground floor of stucco walls. The walls’ solidity, along with the elegant stucco fireplace that stretches its way up the full height of the interior, suggest the massive columns of basalt rock in the Columbia River Gorge, where the Butlers spend many weekends at an alpine cabin. “To me, that’s the most sublime landscape in the world,” Martin says. “And it’s local.”

Because the Butlers prefer unobstructed spaces, there are only two doors inside: one for the guest bedroom and one for the bathroom. The rest of the 2,000-square-foot interior is a series of expansive rooms that spiral up and around the fireplace. Sparsely furnished, the emphasis is on the sense of space and the view rather than on belongings—it’s a place for the couple to relax after hard days on their bikes. Perched on the third floor, overlooking the back courtyard, the master bedroom is a light-filled aerie. In temperate weather, the Butlers slide open the six-foot door to the adjoining porch and lie in bed watching the clouds drift above the treetops. “You can’t see the other houses. It’s like you’re in a tree house,” Sue says. With planked ipe wood floors, subtle green wall tiles, and cedar ceilings and doors, the master bath brings the “outdoor shower experience indoors,” Sue says. A toilet is hidden behind a sliding pocket door in a room made entirely of cedar. Light pours in through floor-to-ceiling frosted glass windows.

One floor below, the couple watches movies from the plush comfort of oversize beanbags scattered on the floor of the media room, or entertains guests in the expansive adjoining living room, warmed by a gaslit fireplace. The ground floor, where the dining room flows into the white oak custom kitchen, is perhaps the most extroverted of the spaces. Here, friends balance on bar stools while the Butlers grill salmon or prepare a salad. When the dining room’s full-length glass doors are open, the outdoor courtyard simply becomes part of the room.

As for the Butlers’ bicycles, those live across the courtyard in an outbuilding divided into two spaces. The first space, at the end of the driveway, is a garage for bicycles. “It’s pretty idiosyncratic,” Martin says. “Not many people have a garage that doesn’t work for cars.” Inside, bicycles hang on hooks in neat lines. Rows of labeled plastic bins hold spare parts, nutrition bars, and gels. A stacked washer and dryer in the corner stand at the ready for muddy jerseys and tights. Outside, there’s even a warm-water hose for washing off dirty bicycles on cold, rainy days.

The other half of the outbuilding is separated from the mud and grease of the bicycle storage area by a small breezeway. Part of the space encompasses a modest bathroom, tiled in white to evoke a feeling of clean simplicity. The main room is a home gym that features what Sue calls the “Wall of Fame”—photos of the pair’s racing exploits. The pictures document Sue’s impressive rise in just five years from complete cycling novice to a competitor in last year’s UCI Cyclocross World Championships (she’s sponsored by MonaVie Cannondale). In the corner, at the top of two large Columbia basalt stone steps (another reference to the Gorge), sits a slender cedar bench that leads into an all-cedar custom sauna furnished with more movable benches. “It’s really nice after a cold ride,” says Sue. “When it’s chilly, Tim takes a shower, then goes in the sauna, and he’s as happy as a clam.”

After moving into their new home last winter, the Butlers finally feel like they have a house that fits their needs and their aesthetics. “I’m pretty happy being in the top 20 in the world at a sport,” says Sue. “And the house helps. It’s less stressful living here. Packing bikes is easier, everything is accessible and organized, and I don’t have to haul things three flights down. It’s all been a fun ride.”