Home & Design December 22, 2008

Rhythm & Reference

A symphony of vision and place

Long before the perfect barnwood was selected or the deliciously difficult strut connections were designed, Russ and Gemma Daggatt’s house existed as an idea—or, rather, an ideal. The home they imagined shortly after they first met was to be an enchanted place, one that would compel family and friends to return year after year, etching fond memories along the way. It would pit historical relevance against architectural innovation. It would be fun.
With the skills of Ketchum architect Jeff Williams, builder Jerry Hayward, landscape architect Richard Emik, and a little luck, their vision was coaxed into reality. In the end, the Daggatts had created not just a house, but a new and personal sense of place in which to make their own history. “I have never before lived somewhere where everything was just as I like it,” says Russ.

The story begins with an incomparable mountain town. For their second home, the Daggatts sought a location close enough to their native city of Seattle for weekend visits, with a different climate and year-round recreational opportunities. Both Russ and Gemma had grown up walking or biking and didn’t relish the thought of being chauffeurs to their children. “We wanted a place that was a real town, not just a resort, but with many of the things city people like—such as The New York Times, a good grocery store, good restaurants, and a diverse set of cultural amenities,” Russ explains. “That narrowed our list down to one place: Ketchum.”

Russ’s enduring love of moving water has been reinforced by the experience of guiding on rivers around the world. “I knew that, some day, our dream home would have to be on the Big Wood,” he says. The Daggatts assumed that a teardown would be their only chance of acquiring riverfront property in town, but—as anyone who has searched for property knows—timing is everything. While walking the river with a realtor friend, Russ serendipitously came upon nearly seven acres of undeveloped land behind Atkinson Park. He contacted the owner and bought the property just days before it would have gone on the market.

“We knew that seven acres was too big for our needs . . . and means. But this gave us the ability to design not only our own home and property, but also our neighborhood,” explains Russ. “In addition to being a big opportunity for us, we also viewed it as a big responsibility to the town and our neighbors. Bad land-use planning, even more than bad architecture, is a crime against society.” This sort of conscientious thinking would be a recurring theme for the Daggatts throughout the building process.

Though the property, as zoned, would accommodate over 20 building sites, the Daggatts subdivided it into four lots that would eventually be sold as two parcels. The “Hideaway Subdivision” was named after the motel, consisting of several small log cabins, that had once occupied the site. The last remaining cabin was renovated as part of the new construction.

Over the course of a couple of years, landscape architect Richard Emik walked the property with Russ for hundreds of hours, studying the sun and the surroundings in each season. The resulting landscape plan has helped preserve the subdivision’s wild, natural character and keep it hospitable to wildlife (fresh elk scat on the driveway verifies his success). The subdivision was restricted to require mostly tall wild grasses and native vegetation, as opposed to manicured landscaping. Driveways and building envelopes were scattered to preserve views and save large stands of healthy cottonwoods. And the riparian zone along the river was doubled, from 25 to 50 feet.

Hundreds of trees have been planted in the subdivision, and Russ chose and precisely placed scores of them on the Daggatt property. “The bigger, more unique specimen trees are like friends or family—I look forward to growing old with them,” Russ says. “That attachment to the living things on the land is one of the main things that make me want to return to this property in every season, year after year.”

Shortly after purchasing the land, Russ and Gemma presented architect Jeff Williams with several distinct ideas for their new home. “We gave Jeff a photo of an old, abandoned mining building in Montana,” Gemma says. “It had a rusted metal roof and grayed wood siding. That was my dream building. Russ wanted a log cabin. So we asked Jeff to make the two collide. We were also very clear that we wanted a ‘21st-century log cabin,’ as we call it—meaning modern.”

They soon discovered that their lot was directly across from the site of an old smelter, once the largest building in the Valley. “We started our search for form and materials with research into this long-gone structure,” Williams says. “Our study of early Valley structures of all types led us to refer to these early buildings and materials in an appropriate way.” By weaving their not-so-disparate visions together, the Daggatts and Williams were able to conjure up a house that is both contemporary and contextual. >>>



On the rare occasions when the planets align and owner, architect, and builder are truly in sync, great things can happen. While viewing the work of several architects, the Daggatts looked at things such as the siting of buildings, flow of space, use of light, and combination of materials. They felt that Jeff excelled in all of these areas and suspected that he shared their desire to do something “different.” Gemma says, “Not only did Jeff seem to ‘get it’ right away, but he also seemed to produce the most clean designs we’d seen in the Valley—no unnecessary or odd spaces because another design feature was more important.”

As a former real estate developer, Gemma identified a creative thinker and talented craftsman in builder Jerry Hayward. “He wears ‘bags’ and does the work rather than being one step away from the process. Jerry was so in tune with our thoughts that he was always able to second-guess what we would have chosen when quick decisions were needed. We think this contributed to the project coming in on time and under budget.”

Russ, a former CEO with strong views on design, notes, “Jerry has a very demanding, perfectionist personality and work style, but he was also low-key enough to accept our high level of involvement. He spends his customers’ money like it’s his own: he wanted everything to be just right, but didn’t want to spend money unnecessarily.”

With the team assembled and mutual trust established, the project charged ahead. As Russ tells it, “We gave Jeff a few dozen ideas and parameters and then went away for a couple of months.” When they returned for the holidays, Williams already had a fairly well-developed scheme. According to Gemma, “Jeff was so ‘right on’ that the design we ended up with was his first take—amazing.”

Aside from some size reduction and the elimination of a hallway, the initial concept remains intact. When asked what his favorite part of the house is, Williams replies, “The situation. There was a lot of freedom involved. I like to let the differences in the clients take me to the final product.”

Williams manifested the Daggatt’s vision in a string of four elements: “Two buildings of traditional log construction and two larger frame buildings create a rhythm and reference the mixed-scale buildings of a farm compound.” Each mass has a simple shed roof, and two reverse shed dormers emphasize the entry and the garage studio. Corrugated rusted steel unifies the group of ascending shed roofs.

The buildings fan out along the river, taking advantage of the views and the sun while collecting guests like a funnel at the front of the house. The geometry isn’t perfect or rigid. There is variation in the incremental rotation of each building, and small, flat roof sections connect the larger pieces when needed—but this organic deviation does not dilute the perception of form.

With its compressed height and few, fastidious windows, the front of the house appears both private and unassuming. The focused linearity creates a calm and inviting human scale that does nothing to give away the soaring expanses of glass and space that open to the river in back. The overall effect is a pleasantly fresh take on mountain architecture. The deliberate detailing and massing suggest something new and original, but the familiar materials defy you to place it.

In the ceiling and roof, steel bolts, flitch plates, straps, and other fasteners are exposed inside and out, achieving a sense of honesty in materials and structure—something Williams tries to promote in all of his designs. Some of the most complicated design elements are the strut-to-column and strut-to-beam intersections in the great room (Williams had to model the custom steel connectors three-dimensionally on the computer before they could be fabricated). Russ delights in the result. “I think the struts holding up the roof in the great room are spectacular. I love how the entire structure of that building is exposed. The structure is the design.”

The log sections are fully coped and use minimal caulking instead of thick chinking to reflect an older, more hand-hewn style. Exposed log ends emphasize the shift in materials and function between buildings.

Russ and Gemma Daggatt are fortunate to share a similar design aesthetic. When interviewed separately, their recollections, ideas, and responses are so parallel as to seem rehearsed. Says Russ, “It proved to be a fun collaboration, with each able to delegate to the other as the circumstances of our lives required.”

For Russ, passion for the site was tantamount; for Gemma, it was enthusiasm for the materials. “I had collected lots of ideas for design over the years, and had seen many materials used on the projects I built,” says Gemma, who worked in theater and film set and costume design prior to her stint in real estate development. “It was a dream to be able to incorporate those ideas—from industrial construction to historical renovation to the theatrical.”

Recycled barnwood, perhaps the most central design element, pulls the exterior theme into and throughout the house. Basing their search on the photo of the Montana mining building, the Daggatts looked for wood of a fairly
uniform silver-gray color with knots and gnarls indicative of its true age.

They planned to leave the wood unfinished. “You can’t fake old wood, and you can’t fake the weathering—it is a texture, not a color,” Russ says. They were also looking for planks of varying widths, some wider than can usually be found in new stock. Gemma ultimately obtained the required quantity and quality of wood, from several barns, through a recycled-wood broker. >>>



In addition, the Daggatts went to great lengths to find hand-peeled logs and recycled pine flooring with plenty of character. They are so fond of the resulting floor that, Williams says, they are reluctant to put rugs over it.

Russ made the site-appropriate river-rock fireplace his pet project, working with the masons on color and content, and choosing interesting rocks that might be rejected in other homes for their unusual shape or texture. Describing a unique, two-ton boulder that was incorporated into the end of the hearth in the great room, he says, “No other rock would work in that place. We love the eccentric nature of it.”

The Daggatts’ attitude of accountability to the environment is illustrated in the construction and finish materials they chose. High levels of insulation counter the large expanses of glass. Nontoxic and water-based finishes were used in areas requiring treatment, and energy-efficient light fixtures and appliances were specified. “We didn’t want heated pavers in the driveway,” says Russ. “In our minds, that would be a ridiculously expensive, environmentally wasteful excess.”

“It was very important to use as much recycled material as possible—like the barnwood, and to be thoughtful about what couldn’t be—like the dead standing logs and farm-raised mahogany windows,” explains Gemma. “Log-stump tables were made from sawed-off ends. Why not use the leftover materials instead of discarding them?”

The larger frame structures contain public spaces such as the great room, kitchen, garage-studio, and family room, while the smaller log elements house the two primary bedrooms. Williams found good use for the wedge-shaped interstitial spaces between the masses: In the master bedroom, an off-axis anteroom with a fireplace, sitting area, and office allows the primary area to be used just for sleeping and taking in the view. At the other end of the house, near the kitchen, the corresponding space is used as a protected outdoor eating area with barbecue and fireplace.

During the course of construction, extra height in the laundry room was converted to a sleeping loft above the guest master bedroom—perfect for small visitors. Gemma envisions the area under the low, sloped ceiling of the garage-studio as a place to do textile design, while Russ imagines an amateur recording studio. There is hardly any wasted space in this house, despite its 7,000 square feet of living area.

Russ and Gemma happen to know more than a little about efficient use of space, since their primary residence is a houseboat in Seattle. “Compared with our Ketchum home, it is minuscule,” says Russ. Gemma considers herself lucky. “We like living in a smaller place in-city, as we think it will give our kids a good perspective as they grow up: [they’ll be aware that] it doesn’t take much space to live well. So, they have room to roam in Ketchum, while learning to share and cooperate in a small space in Seattle.”

Russ appreciates the rediscovery of things for which they did not formerly have room, like his extensive record collection. “Those records had been stored away in boxes for years. It’s a luxury to have them out next to a turntable.” He also made his first batch of ale this summer—something else there isn’t room for on a houseboat. The Daggatts’ desire for space is perhaps most readily indulged in the great room, where nearly 50 feet of continuous sliding glass doors can be pushed neatly out of the way to blur the distinction between the great room and the great outdoors.

Unusual features such as this make the house unique, but it is the small, idiosyncratic details that make it personal. Beautiful and exotic doors from India, Morocco, Mexico, and Pakistan guard important rooms. “The doors, I think, represent our aesthetic most clearly—rustic, simple, colorful, eclectic,” explains Gemma.

On the outdoor fireplace, a bolt anchor and belay system were embedded in the chimney cap to allow the inevitable climber to ascend the rocks safely. Russ knew that, with the rockwork going almost 30 feet high, the temptation to climb would be irresistible—at least for him. “It is a fairly challenging climb, but one that most people can pull off with persistence. Just the right degree of difficulty.”

An issue of concern for Gemma in building a new home was “how to create a history, to avoid building a place that feels so new it has no soul.” Personal items have been incorporated to counteract that feeling—among them, a Mexican caldera basin in the powder room and a clawfoot tub ice chest on the deck.

Perhaps the most telling item is an old ski-lift chair suspended from a pergola in back of the house. Gemma likes the sense of humor in this: “It’s fun to have a little ski mountain vernacular without going to the point of overkill.” Russ says he loves the lift chair: “I spent countless hours this summer swinging with my daughter and watching the sun set.”

Russ and Gemma Daggatt spent a generous amount of time studying their property, listening to the land, and enlisting the appropriate interpreters when necessary. Jeff Williams and Jerry Hayward crafted a spectacular house that celebrates this property. And with persistent involvement and relentless attention to detail, the Daggatts invoked, in this house, a definition of place that is all their own.

For more images of the Dagatt Home click here.

Gretchen V. Wagner holds a master’s degree from Yale School of Architecture. A freshman English seminar at Dartmouth College entitled “American Essays of Place” was where she met her husband, long before they knew “where they were.” Her own sense of place exists with husband Erik and daughter Sascha, in any location.



This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.