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Earthly Delight: Conversation with Olson Kundig Architects



If we can lead people to love nature more, they will take better care of it.” ~ Jim Olson

The Seattle-based architect should know. He has been exploring the relationship between dwellings and the landscape since the 1960s. His firm, Olson Kundig Architects has earned an elite reputation for its “rich and varied portfolio” that blurs the lines “between rustic and refined,” according to Architectural Digest. In fact, the firm has appeared on the magazine’s prestigious AD100 list six times, amassing a collection of AIA awards and other honors along the way (including an induction into Interior Design magazine’s Hall of Fame). These accolades have led to an international client following, especially among art collectors who value the firm’s commitment to style, craftsmanship, sustainability and sensitivity to context. Says Olson: “Buildings can serve as a bridge between nature, culture and people. We believe inspiring surroundings have a positive effect on people’s lives.”


Outpost. Photography by Tim Bies.

Inspiring surroundings—like the Baja, Mexico Residence, An American Place in Seattle, Outpost in Central Idaho and Pierre—a retreat chiseled into rock on Washington’s majestic San Juan Islands. These projects—luxurious in their own right—all point to Olson Kundig’s delicate handling of landscape, architecture, interiors and art. “It is all one integrated design statement,” adds Olson. “Everything affects and is affected by everything else.” Like nature itself.

To better understand the ever-budding relationship between luxury and sustainability, we recently spoke with Olson and Tom Kundig in an exclusive interview for Previews® Inside Out.

Previews Inside Out What inspires you?


Tom Kundig Nature is the inspiration for everything we do…it is our basis for the human condition; science is nature, mathematics is nature, culture is nature and so on. It ALL conspires to inspire.

Previews Inside Out How would you define luxury?


Jim Olson Living close to nature is the greatest luxury.

Previews Inside Out Can an eco-friendly home really be luxurious?

Jim Olson Absolutely—creature comforts, protection from cold and wind, and being warmed by the sun are natural and far more comfortable than artificial environments with air conditioning.


Outpost photography by Tim Bies.

Previews Inside Out A lot of your work involves preserving the natural habitat surrounding the home—does this challenge you or inspire you (or both)?

Tom Kundig Making a place that resonates with people stems from understanding the essential qualities that make us human and our relationship with our world. I look for ways to connect to those elements in as direct a way as possible…to connect people to their environment, whether rural or urban, and to celebrate that landscape.

Previews Inside Out What are some extraordinary active green features you would design?

Tom Kundig Being able to literally shape your house or shelter to the existing environmental conditions is both active and sustainable. Opening an entire façade of a building to the landscape connects you to that landscape and ultimately modulates your exposure.

Previews Inside Out Have you found that more of your clients have been asking for sustainable design in recent years?

Jim Olson Clients now come to us asking for sustainable design, whereas a few years ago we would be the ones to bring it up. We have several projects that are net-zero as well as a few that are planned to be off-the-grid. We don’t really talk about it; it’s just part of what we do. Sustainable design has gone mainstream.

The Pierre. Photography by Benjamin Benschneider.

The Pierre. Photography by Benjamin Benschneider.

Previews Inside Out How much of a percentage do these kinds of elements add to the cost of a home?

Jim Olson It usually costs a bit more, but the benefits far outweigh the cost; it feels better, costs less over time and it is morally the right thing to do. If you build something well, people will want to preserve it and it will last for generations.

Previews Inside Out How much consideration do your clients give to resale value with respect to sustainability?


Tom Kundig Most of our clients are building legacy homes…houses they intend to live in for a long time and pass to future generations.

Previews Inside Out That’s a lovely term: a legacy home! Can you talk about some of the elemental qualities of materials in the context of your projects…these legacy homes?


Tom Kundig The Pierre’s inspiration came from the tradition of building on non-arable land, allowing the arable land to be cultivated or allowed to exist naturally. The challenge was the risk of building on and in a rock…the lack of control shaping the rock and responding to its changes. Ultimately, it became about exploring the almost daily changes in the conditions of the rock and how we could work with that…and sculpt a home within it.

Jim Olson For the Mexico Residence, we selected stone that is the color of the sand so it appears as if the house emerges from the beach itself. The wood is dark and based on the Mexican tradition of using darker wood. The contrast between the light stone and dark wood creates strong silhouettes and dramatic shapes. The pool visually merges into the ocean. For an American Place, we sought to weave the house into the heavily wooded site; the house shifts back and forth to preserve as many of the existing trees as possible—only one tree had to be removed for the construction of this house. All of the colors we used for the house find their inspiration right on site. The color of the wood used in the house matches the color of the bark of the trees found on site. Along with wood, we used stone, concrete and steel—a limited palette that becomes a background to the nature of the site, and coincidentally makes a good background for art. And the planted roof becomes a home for the many creatures that live there too. Our buildings are as much a part of nature as a bird’s nest or a beehive.

Previews Inside Out What does being green mean to you?

Tom Kundig The greatest challenge is recognizing the true issues of sustainability, not just treating sustainability as a checklist of items or simplifying it to accommodate score keeping. Sustainability should encompass a true, holistic understanding of all the implications of design and building.

Previews Inside Out What’s ahead for green design?

Tom Kundig I’ve always understood the job of the architect to be about considering the environment…by that I mean understanding the resources that are consumed to build things, and the social and cultural implications of what we do. The more we embrace this understanding, the better we will be able to deal with its impacts.


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Earthly Delight: Conversation with Olson Kundig Architects

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