Fine Homebuilding Best Small Home 2013

Best Small Home
Featuring: River Road Mini Home

FineHomebuilding awards a handful of homes their Houses Awards each year that illustrate exceptional residences that balance cost, efficiency, style. Their “award for the best small home this year goes to Nir Pearlson for this 800-sq.-ft secondary dwelling in Eugene, Ore. Set among existing gardens, the third-party certified green house relies on shared spaces and connections to the outdoors to seem larger than its physical boundaries.” We’re pleased to share this honor with the homeowners, Julie Hulme and Rob Handy; the general contractor, Six Degrees Construction; and the consultants and subcontractors. Below is the text of the article published in the FineHomebuilding 2013 Awards Issue.

A Garden Cottage for Low-Impact Living

This 800 sq. ft. infill home was design for its site and its owners lifestyle

By Nir Pearlson

When I first met my clients, Julie, a veteran elementary school teacher, and Rob, a county commissioner, they had been living in a 600-sq.-ft. remodeled chicken coop on a 2.1-acre property for 28 years. Committed to a low-impact and highly self-sufficient lifestyle, they were on a quest to replace the chicken coop with a simple and sustainable home. Their house would need to be durable, low maintenance, and energy efficient, and it would need to complement their sprawling garden. Most of all, they hoped, their home would inspire them with beauty every day.

Julie and Rob’s vision echoed my firm’s mission to design sustainable small-scale homes and to promote urban infill. In addition, I immediately fell in love with their garden, an oasis of tranquility and sustenance minutes from Eugene’s downtown. My firm’s challenge was to design a compact house that would support a modest lifestyle yet foster a sense of abundance.

A verdant site near an urban core
Julie and Rob’s lot is a remnant of the farmland that surrounded Eugene in its early days, most of which has since been subdivided into small residential lots. Oriented east-west, the 700-ft.-long lot provides a generous solar exposure that combines with rich floodplain soil to make this property ideal for gardening. During the summer, the vegetable garden provides most of Julie and Rob’s food, as well as a surplus that they store for the winter. The lot extends between a major traffic arterial on the west and a bike path along the Willamette River to the east. Immediate access to
transportation, city amenities, and the river’s ecosystem translates into urban living at its very best.

In addition to its vegetable and ornamental gardens, the property hosted a weathered barn, a storage shed, Julie and Rob’s chicken coop, and a bungalow from the 1920s that faces the street and is leased by long-term tenants. With no desire for large interiors, Julie and Rob had chosen to live in the smaller accessory house, and they wanted their new home to occupy the same location
among the vegetable beds and fruit trees. Because they spend much of their time tending the land, maintaining visual and physical access to the outdoors was a top priority, so the design of the new house centered on the garden.

Julie and Rob wanted more space than they had in the old coop, but they were content to limit the area and height of their new home to comply with local regulations for secondary dwelling units. To accommodate future growth through greater housing density, Eugene’s zoning code allows construction of accessory dwellings alongside existing homes on single-home residential properties. (For more on this concept, see “Rise of the ADU,” pp. 80-85). Although the zoning code limits the interior of an accessory dwelling to 800 sq. ft. of living space, it allows this living space to be augmented with covered outdoor areas and storage or utility rooms with exterior access.

We took advantage of this allowance to add a mechanical room and multiple covered porches, and because areas with low headroom are not legally considered habitable rooms, we included a bonus space. This area, accessed by a ladder, includes a concealed mechanical-equipment attic and an open, daylit meditation loft.

Designed for the Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is known for its long, rainy winters, prompting a “shed the water and bring in the light” strategy. Summers can be hot, however, so solar protection is necessary. Generous overhangs on the house’s low-sloped shed roofs address all these issues. The south-sloping roof extends the full width of the house and shelters the great-room windows from winter storms and summer heat. It also points two solar arrays toward the sun and allows for north-facing clerestories to illuminate the guest room and loft. The north-facing roof opens the main bedroom to garden views and to mini-clerestories. A small roof on the west shelters the entry. To the south, a roof over the patio springs up and away from the house to frame expansive views and to allow low-angle winter sun to penetrate the indoors. The windows, clerestories, skylights, and three exterior glazed doors provide an ongoing connection with the outdoors and bring in ample daylight.

Julie and Rob wanted their home to represent the Pacific Northwest aesthetically as well. Combining modern forms with traditional craftsmanship, this hybrid timberframe house includes exposed, load-bearing heavy-timber construction as well as standard joists and studs. Posts, beams, rafters, and roof decking were milled from regional Douglas-fir or hemlock timber. The woodwork is clear-coated, which highlights the mineral-tinted Imperial Plaster wall finish (

Sightlines and views make a small house feel spacious
Julie and Rob wanted their home to be at what they called a “human scale.” Julie defines that as “not so big as to feel dwarfed and diminished, but not so small as to feel confined and limited.” With Julie and Rob’s human scale in mind, we designed the roof—with its rafters exposed—to define the scale, orientation, and character of each interior space. With no option for vast rooms,
we mixed and overlapped the entry, living, dining, kitchen, and circulation spaces into a great room. Long vistas through spaces, windows, and doors foster a sense of expansion, while coves such as a window seat off the great room allow for repose.

To prevent monotony, spaces are delineated by changes in flooring or with cabinets or built-ins. For example, the slate flooring transitions from the entry into a simple hearth, where a woodstove visually anchors the great room.

Third-party certification confirms the home’s quality construction
Julie and Rob’s commitment to sustainable living allowed us to select strategies to reduce their carbon footprint significantly. This earned their home an Earth Advantage Platinum Certification, the highest level offered by Earth Advantage New Homes, an Oregon-based third-party certification program. Earth Advantage weighs energy efficiency, indoor-air quality, resource efficiency, environmental responsibility, and water conservation.

The roof and walls were sheathed with a continuous layer of rigid foam, 1 in. on the walls and 2 in. on the roof. This foam prevents thermal bridging and insulates well beyond code levels. Daylight from the windows minimizes the need for electric lighting, and a minisplit heat pump couples with a heat-recovery ventilator to heat and ventilate the home efficiently. A woodstove provides backup heat and ambiance.

A grid-tied solar photovoltaic array offsets summertime electricity use; domestic hot water is provided by a solar hot-water collector. In the future, a gray-water diversion system and rainwater catchment cisterns will supply irrigation water to the gardens.

Julie and Rob are satisfied with their new home. Julie says, “Our home is the intimate interplay of inside cozy places of sanctuary and outside gardens splashing light and life through windows. The eye and heart dance from one angle of beauty to another as the intersections create a peaceful harmony.”

2012 People’s Choice Award (Residential)

1st Place – Residential
Featuring: River Road Mini Home

In this competition which takes place annually during the Eugene Celebration weekend, local architects and landscape architects present their featured projects in various categories, and the citizens of Eugene cast their vote for the best project in each category.



River Road Mini-Home
River Road, Eugene

Julie Hulme and Rob Handy

Nir Pearlson Architect, Inc.:
Nir Pearlson, Rachel Auerbach

Pioneer Engineering

Six Degrees Construction

Solar Assist


• Design a sustainable Mini-Home.
• Combine expansive, connected spaces with cozy nooks.
• Weave the interiors into the surrounding garden to celebrate the cycle of seasons.


• Transition between the front porch and the interiors via a slate-tiled entryway.
• Combine and overlap living, dining, and cooking areas within an open central space.
• Expand the great room into the study/guest room and onto the partly-sheltered deck overlooking the garden.
• Anchor the great room with the centrally located wood stove.
• Delineate the passage into the private realm, a master bedroom and a light-fi lled bathroom, with a peaceful altar.
• Expose the hybrid timber-frame structure and the trimwork to frame the naturally-dyed earthen plaster walls and the serene garden vistas.

Footprint: The 800 SF home includes a bonus loft for meditation and storage.
Envelope: Double-insulated walls and roof far exceed code minimums.
Daylighting: Windows, doors, transoms, clerestories, and skylights provide abundant daylight.
Energy Conservation: A super-efficient mini-split heat pump combines with a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) to heat and ventilate the home.
Energy Harvest: The south-facing roof carries a solar photovoltaic (PV) array and a solar hot water collector.
Water Reclamation: The pre-plumbed future graywater system and rainwater cisterns will supply water to the landscape.

“Our home is the intimate interplay of inside cozy places of sanctuary, and outside gardens splashing light and life through windows. The eye and heart dance from one angle of beauty to another as the intersections create a peaceful sense of harmony.”

Small House, Super-sized Living

It’s just 800 square feet, but new home in River Road area feels like a palace to Rob Handy and Julie Hulme.

By Kelly Fenley
Photos by Collin Andrew

Give it up for ol’ Ben again. His waste-not, want-not maxim proves “spot on” in Rob Handy and Julie Hulme’s new one-bedroom, 800-square-foot home in north Eugene.

Every square inch so counts in this hybrid timber-framed cottage, Handy and Hulme say they lack for nothing with livability. And this in a full-on dwelling smaller than many apartment units.

“Small is beautiful,” says Hulme, effusive in her praise for the home’s designer, architect Nir Pearlson, and builder, Six Degrees Construction.

“It fits us,” she continues. “It’s on a human scale. We live a very simple lifestyle, and it fits us perfectly. It has everything.”

In fact Hulme, a longtime teacher at Edgewood Elementary School in Eugene, and Handy, a Lane County commissioner, look at their home more as a spacious retreat than charming but cozy quarters.

The property helps, too: a 2-plus acre lot with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees. But with abundant windows to absorb the verdant outdoors, with sloped ceilings of Douglas fir beams and hemlock decking, and with upscale but soothing finishes like reddish marble for the walk-in shower and a streambed of earth tones in the honed-granite kitchen counters, the house itself is “very calming,” Hulme says.

“It’s like a sanctuary-type feel to it,” she expounds. “We both have very public lives, so it’s very nice to have that kind of sanctuary space. It’s just lovely for us.”

Before and after

Many baby-boomers dream of downsizing to a small home with upscale quality. But the funny thing for Hulme, 56, and Handy, 55, is that they’re actually “up-sizing.”

For 28 years, the couple had lived in a 620-square-foot hodgepodge house — likely dating to the 1940s — on the same property. “We had a bedroom that was literally a ‘bed’ room,” muses Handy, who worked as a landscaper before becoming a county commissioner. “We crawled into bed. We came in (from) the bottom, because there was literally no room on the sides. It was an old tool shed.”

The old home would become a giant recycling project before finally demolished. But first, Hulme gathered ideas for a new house from prominent author Sarah Susanka, an architect who studied at the University of Oregon.

“I have all of her books. She was one of my inspirations,” says Hulme in reference to Susanka’s “The Not So Big House” series.

Then, at the home show in Eugene, Hulme found a visionary soulmate in Pearlson. “Within a minute I knew, ‘This is the man who’s going to build our home,’” Hulme says.

Before starting in, Pearlson spent time with Handy and Hulme, observing how they lived and asking about their lifestyle values. What emerged was the outline for a light-footprint, locally sourced, hyper-energy-efficient home with sustainable materials and quality conveniences befitting a lifetime home.

“This is our forever home,” Hulme explains. “We thought about things. People said, ‘Why don’t you build two stories?’ Because when I’m 85, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get upstairs.”

Eye pleasers

To give Hulme and Handy their one small step up in square footage but giant leap in livability, Pearlson and his assistant designer, Rachel Auerbach, maximized “connectivity” between spaces.

“Connectivity results in expansion,” he explains.

From any one place in the great room, you can see to the other. Spaces are “separated” by physical elements, such as the wood stove that helps delineate living room from kitchen, and the curved dining bar that helps distinguish kitchen space from the front entry.

No hallways or corridors means no wasted square footage. Vertical space soars, thanks to ramped ceilings framed with Douglas fir beams and hemlock decking.

“That sense of exposed structure helps with the openness as well,” Pearlson says.

What Hulme loves “is that feeling of having spaciousness, and yet having these cozy little intimate spaces, too. It feels like someplace you want to be.”

French doors, each double glazed in a rainwater pattern, separate the home’s guest room from great room. But when left open, “the two rooms become one,” Pearlson says.

Even when closed, transom windows above the guest room’s doors create a sense of expanding volume between both rooms.

Perhaps most striking, the modest-size bathroom seems to expand before your eyes. First comes a curved, architectural glass wall, followed by a single sink pedestal, entry to the marble walk-in shower, stepped-up ceiling, and window view to the garden.

In terra-cotta tones, the marble shower with bench seat reminds Hulme “of walking in Utah, all of those big red rock canyons.”

Twenty-six windows connect earth and sky to indoor spaces, bringing daily joy to a couple who grow much of their own food and lace their grounds with flowers and fruit.

“So much of our life revolves around being outside,” Hulme says while sitting on the home’s cedar deck, which also merges indoor/outdoor living spaces on two sides of the house.

With the kitchen windows, Hulme says she feels like she’s “out in the garden cooking.”

“And when you’re in bed, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s sort of like being in a tree house. You’ve got clerestory windows up there that bring in beautiful light in the morning.”

Heart of the matter

But her favorite connection of all in the house?

“There’s no separation between the kitchen and other (great room) spaces,” Hulme says. “People can hang out while you’re cooking, so you can still have fun cooking. … I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Kitchen therapy, says Handy.

“She (Julie) is one of these amazing people who, when she’s tired, she wants to go to the kitchen and cook,” he elaborates. “That helps her relax.”

There’s no dishwasher — “that’s called ‘Rob,’” Hulme quips — but the stainless-steel fridge and power gas stove help testify to upgrades made possible when building smaller.

Spot on, that is, for splendid livability.

A Tiny Oregon House Reaches Beyond Its Walls

A tiny Oregon house reaches beyond its walls to embrace the outdoors, regardless of weather.

“Human scale” is the term owner Julie uses to describe the cozy spaciousness accomplished through her 800-square-foot home. Located on just over two acres at the urban edge of Eugene, Oregon, “it welcomes you in a very open way that feels natural–not confining but definitely embracing.” She and her partner, Rob, sought an earth-friendly home that would bridge the traditional indoor-outdoor barrier while paying practical homage to the often rainy Oregon weather and addressing Julie’s craving for natural light.

The outcome of a close and collaborative process with Architect Nir Pearlson and craftsman Dave Veldhuizen of Six Degrees Construction, the home consists of approximately two-thirds common space with the remainder given to a cozy bedroom bathed in morning light and a highly functional and beautiful bathroom complete with fully accessible tiled shower. “This is our forever house and we designed for that,” the spry, mid-50s Julie says. “The shower doesn’t look like it, but it’s us being realistic about the future.”

Although attention to detail themes the project, the outcome is far from forced. A tall wall of warm tinted plaster anchored by a simple “altar” centers the homeowners and guests as soon as they step over the threshold. The eye travels from the minimalist shelf holding a Buddha, across the room to a series of repeating, horizontal planes of the same wood. Forming windowsills and built-ins, the overall effect is a sweep that directs attention to the verdant greens of the gardens and lawn that sweeps toward the Willamette River. Should you not be distracted by the beauty outdoors (the homeowners hope you are), your eyes come to rest at the center of the home, a traditional woodstove that Julie and Rob used to heat the humble structure that stood in the same place and served as their home for 28 years.

This new home makes living a little easier on the owners–and the environment; it ranks at Earth Advantage “Gold” level. Photovoltaic panels produce electricity, a solar thermal collector delivers hot water, a mini-split heat pump and heat recovery ventilator keep the temperatures comfortable and advanced insulation and air-sealing minimize the need for either.

A stunning butterfly shed roof provides aesthetic interest but more practically, allows for strategically placed skylights, taller windows and clerestories. Light bounces in from expansive decking, which is partially covered by a cantilevered “wing” that offers rain coverage while shuttling more light inside. Not surprisingly, even on an overcast and rainy day, not a single light is on in the house.

The home is situated on 2.12 acres on one edge of an urban core. Even with this space, thought had to be given to a cluster of homes sharing the driveway, and existing gardens and outbuildings: A den/guest room has strategically placed windows that eliminate a view of the neighbors. The bedroom is situated in the most private corner of the home, which faces southeast to capture as much morning sun as possible. A clerestory successfully lights what would otherwise be a dark “hole” above an open-topped closet that would be classified as large even in a much bigger home. In this small home it’s a welcome surprise.

Because entertaining friends and welcoming guests is so important to the couple, the team deliberately framed the den/guest room to be ultimately flexible. A pair of rain glass-inset doors with a clear glass transom above opens wide and multiplies the gathering space if the weather keeps the group inside. But when the doors are closed, the space returns to its primary function of den/guest room. An added bonus is hidden in this room: Another very large closet demonstrates the home’s practical nature. And not content to leave space unused, the closet ceiling forms the floor of an unobtrusive yet significant storage loft.

The homeowners, architect and builder each credit the collective for this stunning and easy living home. “We really dreamt up the space together,” says Dave. “Julie led with her very clear vision of a space that grounds you, that lets you nest while also letting you take in the outside. Nir translated her vision to an intriguing shape with highly functional details that made the most of every ray of light. And my team honored the desire for craftsmanship that respects the vision and the materials. We helped bring that initial dreaming to fruition. We are a bit sad that it’s over,” he confesses.

Relatively Wonderful Redo

Relationships of all kinds — human, structural, spatial, visual — were the forces at play in this compelling, colorful remodel and addition.

By Joel Gorthy

The Eugene home of Andy Traisman and his partner, Lola, is a study in relationships and transformation.

The same might be said for anything that is purposefully altered to better satisfy its users.

But this house, built in 1922 and subjected to a hodgepodge of alterations over the decades, ascended to its new, truly harmonious state only after relationships between spaces and uses were defined; problematic structural relationships solved; and human relationships nurtured during a major renovation fraught with stressful potential.

Human, structural relationships

Traisman, a middle-school teacher, bought the house eight years ago. Lola moved in earlier this year after the addition of a 350-square-foot master suite atop the once flat-roofed garage and a total renovation of the other 2,000 square feet of living space.

“Remodels in and of themselves can be hellacious, but we were also turning this from ‘my’ house to ‘our’ house,” Traisman reflects. “Because we were just moving in together, the scope of the project kept metamorphosing.”

One goal was clear from the outset: to build the bed and bath above the garage, which itself had been added to the two-story house — along with an upper-story bedroom and unfinished utility room below — by previous owners in the early 2000s.

“On top of the garage was just empty space,” Traisman says. “In the summer we’d put lawn furniture out there” to talk while enjoying sunrise-sunset views toward Hendricks Park on one side, the Coast Range on the other. “When I was buying the house, I wondered if it was plausible to put an addition on top. Nir thought about it and said, ‘yep.’”

“The main challenge was structural; the roof wasn’t going to carry it,” says architect and longtime friend Nir Pearlson, who was privy to some of those rooftop gatherings.

Pearlson signed on to design the project despite Traisman’s initial hesitation.

“Nir is like family, so I had reservations because I felt it might be too hard on the relationship,” Traisman says. “But he really wanted the job because of his relationship to us and to this house.”

Pearlson, working with general contractor Paul Allen (of Allen Co. Design It! Build It!) and structural engineer Craig Lawrence, devised a solution that involved strategically placing new footings and posts with beams beneath the floor of the suite.

They also puzzled over ways to eke out usable space for the bed-bath unit, which is offset between the first and second levels of the house. For example, the corner formed by the upper wall and ceiling of the first-floor pantry is just below countertop level of the new bathroom. The vanity’s cabinet doors offer no clues to this space-saving configuration, though inside are shallow storage spaces that extend just a matter of inches before ending at the pantry’s outer wall.

“We mined space out of this house wherever we could,” Pearlson says. “One of the reasons we were limited in space is that Andy and Lola were adamant about having a deck here and a deck there,” he says, indicating the railed terraces on either side of the elevated suite. “I think it worked great.”

Relationships of space, color, light

Just as human and structural relationships required careful navigation throughout this project, relationships of the occupants to their environment were fully considered.

“We touched every corner of the house,” Pearlson says. “There were so many additions that were done in the past, so the whole notion was to unify everything and make it all work.”

Fixes, he says, included replacing a previously removed wall to turn an open dining room into an office; adding a door off the living room and new windows for light and indoor-outdoor connections; opening up a “funky” entryway vestibule and creating an obvious artery from there to the back of the house through the kitchen.

“The kitchen always bugged me,” says Pearlson, who lamented the awkwardly placed refrigerator along a partial wall that hemmed in the room. “I wanted to figure the kitchen out because it’s so central to the life of the house. I felt it was important to create this passage very clearly here,” he says, pointing along the line that now extends from the front door through to the stairway at the rear of the house, carried visually by the alignment of a new butcher-block kitchen island and row of hanging pendant lights.

Copious windows and vibrant, varied colors brighten the refreshed home. Twenty-seven different hues coat the interior and exterior in a rainbow of warm tones. At the junction between the dining room, kitchen and living room, rich red, yellow and orange shades converge harmoniously at wall corners — successful relationships made possible by Traisman’s countless paint-sampling trips to The Home Depot and consultations with painter Steve Derminer.

The once light-gray/sage-green interior now radiates color not only from the walls, but from artful accents including Leonie Daniels’ multi-hued mosaic backsplashes of recycled tile in the kitchen and master bath.

“I just lived with the previous owners’ taste for seven years,” Traisman says. “I wouldn’t have done all this if we weren’t moving in together. But Lola was coming into a new home …”

“And I needed color and light,” she interjects. “Part of the reason I didn’t want to move in earlier was because it felt so dark and cold.”

She and Traisman had to overcome some dark times during construction, too, including her unanticipated back surgery and the death of two older dogs. They say they’re thankful for how much Allen and his crews mitigated disruptions during the nine-month, $150,000-plus job, but still, Traisman says, “the project took on a different gravity after a while. There was nothing light about it.”

The lightness came afterward.

“Sometimes I’ll just sit in different places and watch how the light plays across the colors,” Lila ponders. “My favorite part is the light.”

“Depending on the leaves on the trees, the angle of the sun and the light dappling on the walls,” Traisman adds, “nothing ever looks the same twice.”

And that would seem to portend well for a long, happy and interesting relationship with this well-evolved home.


2009 People’s Choice Award (Residential)

1st Place – Residential
Featuring: West Fourth Residence

In this competition which takes place annually during the Eugene Celebration weekend, local architects and landscape architects present their featured projects in various categories, and the citizens of Eugene cast their vote for the best project in each category.


Reinhart-Gray Residence
West 4th Avenue, Eugene

Catherine Reinhart & Scott Gray

Nir Pearlson Architect, Inc.

John Norrena

Gray Brothers Construction

Replace the former residence with a new 2-story residence and a garden guest-cottage. Link interior spaces and provide ample indoor-outdoor access and views.

The double-height living room serves as a spatial hub, linking all interior and exterior spaces: entry, dining and kitchen; the loft above; and the front and back gardens. A trellised deck parallels the glazed master wing hall, linking the interiors to the south-facing courtyard and the intensively cultivated food and flower garden. The stairway and loft, both constructed with Douglas-fir planks reclaimed from an old lumber warehouse, lead to two home offices, an airy dance and yoga room, and to the covered ‘Romeo & Juliet’ balconies perched over the gardens. Despite the property size limit, the open-plan design results in spacious, airy and daylit interiors, with multiple links to the outdoors.

Compact Footprint: The small urban lot is efficiently in-filled with the main house, a family guest cottage, and a small intensive, food producing garden.
Reclaimed Wood: The mezzanine deck and stairs were constructed of massive reclaimed Douglas fir warehouse shelves. High-school gym bleachers were milled into window and door trim.
Daylighting: Maximized via multiple windows and skylights.
Envelope & Energy: Low-infiltration ‘Spider’ insulation is sprayed into all wall cavities, and a centrally-located gas fireplace coupled with ceiling fans, provide efficient heat boosting to back up the central heating.

Once a Cocoon, Now a Butterfly

It may seem the fairy godmother had a hand in this remodel — the transformation was almost as radical as a frog becoming a prince — but that would have been wishful thinking for owner Clark Fagot.

Instead he paid top dollar, in the literal sense, to remove the core of his modest-size, single-level home in south Eugene and reconstruct it with Northwest woods and a boxy but daring second-floor master suite oriented for window light and city views.

Fagot declines to say how much the remodel cost, but declares “I’ve never had a moment of buyer’s remorse.” The 42-year-old video game programmer attended schools in this 30th-Avenue neighborhood, graduating from South Eugene High School in 1985, and he’s grateful for its lifestyle conveniences.

“Now I have a nice place to live, and it’s where I want it,” says Fagot (pronounced fuh-go), noting the easy commute by bicycle, bus or car to his office on Fifth Avenue. “It’s something where it affects your lifestyle, where you want to put your money.”

Shady past

If ever a little house needed to sprout wings for a breezy new interior, it could be this one. In fact the original 1,200-square-foot home had such a low-slung roof with dark overhangs, made all the more gloomy indoors by soffited drop ceilings, it was almost like living in a cocoon.

A cramped cocoon at that. The little galley kitchen was separated from the diminutive dining room, and a slim hallway — just beyond 2 feet wide — made for dim passage to three small bedrooms and the home’s only bathroom.

And yet, when Eugene architect Nir Pearlson arrived on the scene, hired by Fagot to remake the home, he took cheer in certain of the little abode’s mid-century modern features.

He especially loved how glass-block columns illuminated the cozy front entry, how a slight butterfly roof graced the one-car garage, and how ’50s charm still shone through various fixtures and surfaces.

“We definitely took modernist cues that existed in the house,” Pearlson says in explaining his plan of attack for remodeling the core of the original house and adding 750 square feet of soaring new space above.

The trick, he adds, was to “liberate” the mid-century modernism elements with livability luxuries relished in today’s Pacific Northwest homes, namely generous window light, native woods, taller ceilings and enduring craftsmanship. Once work began, the project was nothing short of major surgery for general contractor Nick Russo.

“Very little, if any, of the central section remains of the original structure,” sums up Russo, a home designer himself and owner of Renaissance Remodeling & Restoration in Eugene. “I’d say 80 percent of it is new.”

Up, up and away

Building up on a modest, older home gets spendy. Complex structural elements — reinforced foundation, load-bearing framing — must be retrofitted to support the new second floor.

But it was the best option for Fagot’s home, says Pearlson. “It’s an urban infill. The rationale of going up makes complete sense: small house on a small lot in a dense environment.”

No mistaking Fagot’s home now. The upper-floor addition sets atop the original house like a big box, only with a slight V-shaped roofline. The minimalist design, which Pearlson says was like taking the baby-butterfly shape of the original garage roof and “putting it on steroids,” helps open the house to the outdoors. “Our goal (for the second floor) was an upward motion as you move out,” Pearlson says. “You bring the outside in, as opposed to what you would have with a flat roof or a vault.”

Contractor Russo allows the remodel “makes a pretty strong statement” in what he refers to as a post-war neighborhood built during the dawn of mass-production tract housing. But the rebuilt house would fit right in with neighborhoods in his native Bay Area, Russo says, and he expects to see more of such bold additions as buildable land becomes scarce in Eugene.

“Those neighborhoods that used to be in decline, like (this) Alder Street neighborhood, are going to turn around again,” he predicts. “Hopefully, for people like me, they will choose to renovate. I tell people, ‘We’re reinventing these structures into the modern era.’ That’s what we do.”

Fresh start

The new day in Fagot’s home starts with brighter living.

Upstairs and down, ceilings capture an Oregon essence with hemlock decking atop exposed Douglas fir beams. Most floors in the home are now white oak, and recycled fir — milled from old bleacher seats — makes for window sills, door casings and rails on the new stairway.

Upstairs, the open bedroom suite has luxuries like a jetted soaking tub — sitting out in the open all on its own — next to a modernist gas warming stove. A “wet zone” swath of slate extends from the tub to a bathroom adorned with travertine tile and glass-block shower.

Lofty windows illuminate the suite, with views extending east to the south hills and west to Amazon Park. For lounging around on sunny days, Fagot can step from the suite’s home office onto an 8-by-10-foot outside deck.

Downstairs, a radical new grand space combines kitchen, dining room and a modernistic, wide-open reverse stairway where a bedroom had been. Taller ceilings help brighten the living room, which also now merges with the grand space.

The rebuilt kitchen preens with brushed-metal appliances, beech cabinets and luxurious granite countertops. New built-ins include a work island and pantry.

Pearlson made good on his promise for modernistic cues with clean lines and exposed structures, such as the ceiling beams, which extend outside of the home for sheltering eaves. The new, wide-open staircase also is a bit stark with steel cables in place of balusters.

Windows upstairs have no wood framing, other than the sills, for a so-called sheetrock return.

It all adds up to a new realm of livability for Fagot. “When I’m lying around, it’s very homey,” he says. “It makes me feel at ease.”

2008 People’s Choice Award (Residential)

1st Place – Residential
Featuring: McKenzie River Residence

In this competition which takes place annually during the Eugene Celebration weekend, local architects and landscape architects present their featured projects in various categories, and the citizens of Eugene cast their vote for the best project in each category.



McKenzie River Residence


Watson Family


Nir Pearlson Architect, Inc.

Landscape Architect:

LandCurrent Landscape Architecture

Structural Engineer:

K & A Engineering

General Contractor:

Greg Morrow & Sons, Inc.



Design a compact modern home on a wooded slope fronting the McKenzie River. Integrate the structure into its natural setting. Reduce impact & energy consumption. Maximize daylighting and indoor-outdoor connections.


  • Living and master wings occupy two separate square, tall volumes joined by a low-profile entry hall
  • Second floor slab is set on concrete piles, suspended over the sloping ground
  • Minimalist modern design couples industrial elements with traditional post & beam construction
  • Simple yet expressive material palette includes concrete, stucco, wood & steel
  • Shed roofs lifting in opposite directions afford tall panoramic views to nature’s drama of basalt, forest & river

Sustainable Strategies

  • Small footprint: Compact design & raised floor allows regeneration of the forest floor
  • Radiant mass heat: Hydronic tubes circulate super-efficiently heated water in concrete floor slab
  • Daylighing: Oversized windows & transoms
  • Reclaimed materials: Rigid insulation boards & finish woodwork
  • Increased insulation: R-40 insulated roof & super-deep wall cavities

The Nature of Design

Joy Watson and her husband, Doug, probably are every architect’s dream clients: When it came time to design their new home overlooking the McKenzie River east of Springfield, she said, “We just got out of the way and let Nir (Pearlson) do it.”

The result was something the couple never would have come up with themselves, “and we’re more than happy with it,” Watson said. “If I had been there putting my two cents in, we wouldn’t have gotten this.”

A lot of other people also appreciated the effort, because during the voting held last month during the Eugene Celebration, the Watson home won the single-family residential prize in the People’s Choice Awards, an annual competition sponsored by the Southwestern Oregon chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Pearlson also won the top spot in the commercial category for another of his projects, La Perla Pizzeria Napoletana, a complete redo of the building at 13th and Pearl streets in downtown Eugene that formerly housed the iconic red-and-white striped Farrell’s ice cream parlor and served as the birthday party capital for generations of local children.

You’d never recognize it now. Gone are the dark wood (and vaguely sticky) tabletops, the red-hot walls and the clamoring decor that gave the place a nonstop fever pitch. By contrast, La Perla is spare, sophisticated and subtle, a combination of Pacific Northwest sensibilities and overtones of traditional Italian shapes and colors. It’s just what Pearlson was aiming for when he and the building’s owners, Beppe Macchi and John “Gianni” Barofsky — who first made their culinary mark with Beppe & Gianni’s Trattoria at 19th and Agate streets — first sat down to come up with a design for La Perla, which opened at the end of June.

“The basic idea is a feeling of Italy moved to Eugene, but it’s a totally Northwest product with mostly local materials and lots of light,” Pearlson said. “We took some ideas from traditional Italian architecture, like arches and columns, and stripped them down to their essence, like a shadow of the original.”

After removing the old checkerboard floor tiles, the beat-up slab floor got a coat of stain and clear finish reminiscent of “a floor with a history and a story,” he said. The skylit atrium in the entry recalls shafts of light between tall Italian buildings, and the masonry and stone in the oven area recalls the earthen colors and textures of Mediterranean culture.

To Pearlson’s surprise, La Perla’s new vibrant green exterior and metal-clad base raised more eyebrows than any other aspect of its design.

“Someone called and said they didn’t like the color and that other people didn’t either,” he said. “What we did here, which we really didn’t think was radical at all, apparently was a little bit of a push for some people.”

Both of Pearlson’s prizewinning designs, and many others in the competition, share what appears to be a value among architects in the area to introduce interesting — if sometimes unexpected — building materials in designs that build on rather than dominate their landscape.

A major exception, of course, is Eugene’s two-year-old Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse that makes no pretense of anything but garnering attention. But Pearlson acknowledges that architect Thom Mayne’s controversial glass and stainless steel edifice with its swoops and angles “probably has helped to release something in local architecture.”

“Many people here are so hooked on gabled, traditional forms of design that it can be difficult to introduce new things,” he said. “I think a lot of architects in town wish they could move things a little faster, but the public is often quite conservative (about design). But I think the courthouse probably did help with that, that people who didn’t like it at first are getting used to it and feeling more relaxed about it.”


“We were originally thinking of building in traditional farmhouse style — old, old,” Joy Watson said. “We originally were trying to buy 100 acres near Creswell, and that went on for a long time and then the whole thing fell through. So we started looking at river property instead.”

After losing out on two other riverfront properties, they jumped at the chance to buy their five acres on Deerhorn Road, only to find afterward that most of it is zoned for exclusive forestry use, leaving just a small homesite area with a steep hill immediately behind it available for building.

“At that point, I was so upset about losing my original idea of farmhouse, acreage and chickens, I decided to do the total opposite and go completely modern,” Watson said. “We told Nir that we wanted a simple, very modern, minimalist house, and this is what he gave us.”

Essentially, the Watson house is two sections facing opposite directions, joined by a central corridor. The roof of the “public” area — open kitchen, dining and living rooms — slants upward from back to front to capture the view of the trees and the river. On the private side, the roof slants upward front to back, giving the master bedroom the opened-up view of the rocky hillside just beyond.

“Before I did the design, I came out and sat here for hours, getting the feel of the land,” Pearlson said. “This house is definitely designed for this site — it was not brought in, it ‘became’ here.”

A huge “sentinel” rock outcropping dominates the building site, and the house was pushed as close as legally allowed to the property line “to keep the building away from the rock’s line of energy,” he said. “But it’s an important part of the site — it looms there, definitely part of the design, and we wanted to incorporate it.”

Other large basalt boulders removed during excavation for the house’s underpinnings also have been incorporated in its landscaping, “merging the human creation with the natural,” Pearlson said. The house is mostly wood and glass, with exposed concrete floors and plastered walls whose colors blend into the hues on the adjoining outside surfaces. The roof sections, beam ends and trim are zinc-treated steel.

At 1,500 square feet with an additional 500 square feet of unfinished space below the main floor, the house is small by recent standards. Because of the challenging building site, the cost came in at about $220 per square foot, Watson said. Its size and clean, open spaces has encouraged the couple to declutter their lives. She’s delighted at the impetus to keep and acquire only what is essential.

“I’m addicted to modern now,” Watson said. “Design is something I just never thought much about, but this is just gorgeous.”