When Joel and Theresa McFarland found the perfect place for their home — the bluff overlooking the mouth of Gig Harbor, with Puget Sound views from the Olympics to Mount Rainier — they knew they wanted it to be modern. Clean lines, one level, lots of light. The only trouble? The site was smack in the middle of shoreline and historic districts.
Two years, one architect and many city petitions later, the McFarlands had the perfect hybrid: a home that meets historic restrictions with modern flair.
“I love open floor plans and lots of light. Here in the Pacific Northwest, you need as much of that as you can get,” says Theresa, an orthopedic surgeon.
Joel, a radiologist, says the family was captivated by the views of ships, ferries, even a whale. But, he says, “We had to meet all the Gig Harbor historic home requirements, as well as our modern tastes.”
So the couple hired Tacoma architect Jill Sousa to find a solution. The first thing was to tear down the original house. Not only was it oriented badly for views and layout, the 1980s construction was so fragile that even “the demolition guy was worried it was going to collapse outward,” says Theresa.
Building a new house meant that Sousa could make full use of the original footprint, although she was constrained by shoreline regulations capping the height at 27 feet. To make things harder, historic-home regulations required a gable, and most of the roofline to be sloping, with intersecting gables or dormer windows. Other requirements included windows taller than wide, with three inches between and in groups of three or less. The siding had to be in historic style — horizontal or vertical — and in a neutral palette. Only 20 percent of exterior materials could be non-historic, like the thin metal trim around each window. View corridors had to be preserved for the neighbors.
For every variance to the guidelines (materials, roof slope) Sousa had to petition the City of Gig Harbor for “alternative designs.”
The McFarlands wanted enough south-facing roofline for 26 solar panels they’d brought from their old house, and to maximize that stunning view while keeping privacy from the neighbors.
“If you followed the guidelines to a T, you’d hardly have any view,” says Theresa.
After six months of negotiating with the city, Sousa’s solution — aided by interior designer Catherine Crabtree and builder Pete Grobins — is a beautiful house that combines a Zen aesthetic, light-filled interiors and a subtle nod to Gig Harbor’s maritime past.
From the driveway — tucked away above a dead-end harborside street — the main entry has a Japanese feel, with gray siding and pavers contrasting with warm cedar on walls and double doors. Inside, the central gable runs from entry to waterside, allowing stacked trios of tall windows looking out to the Puget Sound. Sousa constructed the historically-required gable with welded steel rafters, which opens up the living-dining room by not needing a central support. It also allows a loft play space for the Mcfarlands’ two children, reached by floating stairs and lit by a dormer window. Floating benches, fireplace and cupboards add to the airy feel, as does a pale blond bamboo floor. The waterside wall zigzags around a corner opening onto the main deck — more light.
There’s another window wall, zigzag and outside deck off the master bedroom.
“We took the killer view for ourselves,” says Joel.
The kids’ bedrooms and bathroom sit under the only flat roof on the property. That’s invisible from the street, though not from the water, as the family found out while kayaking. The walk-out basement has windows and patio mirroring the upper level.
From the street below, those walls of windows mesh perfectly with the other historic homes nearby, though painted all-gray for a sleeker look. Subtle overhangs with tongue-and-groove fir give a vaguely maritime feel, along with the cable deck railing.
Finally, the landscaping confirms the modern look: exposed concrete steps and border edges, pocket lawns, strategic rocks, sleek glass art in planters and a decking “bridge” to the front door over a dry rock bed.
Designing a modern house in a historic zone isn’t a walk in the park. Sousa and her clients were “calculating every square inch” of non-historic material and flat roof, getting letters of support from neighbors and carefully regrading the slope to comply with the 27-foot maximum.
But the result is the house they dreamed of — even down to the corner of the master bedroom custom-designed for Joel’s favorite chair.
“I was very satisfied,” says Sousa, adding she liked the “fun challenges” of working out details of the project.
“I love this house,” says Theresa. “The clean lines, the plainness.”