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The mark of Ben Waechter's Z-haus and Portland's new wave

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Ben Waechter comes to Portland with an impressive resume. He's spent the last decade working for two of the world's most famous architects: first Brad Cloepfil at Allied Works here in town and then the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Genoa, Italy. Raised in Eugene and educated at the University of Oregon, Waechter came back to Portland to set out on his own.

The Z-haus, a two-unit rowhouse on Northeast Mallory Street (near MLK and Fremont), is Waechter's first built project, and it's impressive.

Before arriving, I wasn't sure what I thought of the front facade based on the picture I saw. It seemed tall and almost commercial-looking for a residential street, with garages in the front that are not the most desirable urbanistic choice. However, the Z-haus looks better and better the more you see it - particularly on the inside.

The project is similar to the 'skinny houses' or narrow-lot houses that comprised the City of Portland's 'Living Smart' competition a couple years ago, but the two residences are one structure instead of two. That makes the building look a lot better proportionally. It's not two little beanpoles.

The building is both set back from the street to reduce the appearance of bulk and set back from the property line on the other side to allow more of a backyard. As a result, the building went taller - 4 stories. That created the issue of disconnection between the different levels. If you're a kid in the 4th floor bedroom, how are you gonna ask mom and dad to come tuck you in when they're three levels down watching Desperate Housewives?

Here's where Waechter made a smart decision about layout: each of the four upstairs rooms is only a half-level up from the last, with the rooms occupying alternately front and back portions of the building. Whatever level you're on, you can see and talk to the people on a level upstairs or downstairs.

The other impressive thing about the interior rooms is that they're all identically sized and, with the use of a long sliding door, can be made into either bedrooms or public spaces like a family room or den. I've seen bedrooms that can be made into public areas, and public areas that could be converted into bedrooms, but before the Z-haus I'd never seen residential spaces that were exactly half-and-half. If the sliding door is closed, it feels like a bedroom room. If it's open, it feels like a family room. I love that you could literally have any combination: four extra living rooms, three bedrooms and a TV room, you name it.

The combination of the half-level progression back and forth up the house with the flexibility of every space makes the Z-haus unique in that it's a very pure architectural idea that's been carried out into a very usable, flexible reality.

As you'd expect, the house is also pretty sustainable, utilizing radiant floor heating and Earth Advantage-approved insulation. Because the windows are well placed at corners of rooms where they can bounce sunlight deep into interior spaces, it's also possible to go all day without any electric lights on - although Ben had them on at the suggestion of the realtors.

Did I mention this place is for sale? Neither unit is cheap at $500,000 apiece, but that's actually a nice deal considering each unit has 2,800 square feet and the house offers views of both Mt. Hood from the front and downtown from the back. And the house also demonstrates first-rate craftsmanship, from the unique terra cotta bathrooms (where shower, wall and floor are all one material) to white oak floors. I usually dislike the look of oak, but it looks great here - warming up the space with subtle red and orange tones.

Although having garages and driveways in front is not the most attractive move either for the home or the neighborhood, here I think Ben had his developer's hat on more than the architect's hat. Whether we like it or not, the market seems to favor homes with a place to put your car. That said, the picture of the Z-haus's frontage in the top picture of this post doesn't do justice to the landscaping that will soften the look once it grows to maturity. The driveway is a series of concrete slabs with about a third of the volume taken up by soft natural ground, where lots of Corsican mint has been planted. [Note: this paragraph I added later after reading some of the post's initial comments.]

Ben Waechter is the latest in what seems to be a new wave of talented small firms and sole practitioners, particularly those working in close-in Northeast and North Portland. There is also Path Architecture, Sakura Urban Concepts,  William Kaven, Paul McKean, Building Arts Workshop, Brett Crawford, SUM Design Studio and Seed Architecture, among others. They're already changing the Williams Avenue corridor, and It'll be interesting to see where these firms go from there in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, even if he didn't have the Cloepfil/Piano pedigree behind him, the Z-haus makes me excited to watch Ben's career unfold.

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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