Group 6 5 minutes Read

studio zerbey / hilltop residence

Lauren Zerbey

It’s not that often that I write a blog post (yep, Kyle here), but this house is one I’ve been wanting to share for a while. But first, a quick note – things have changed a lot for us in the past year with the birth of our daughter and both of us leaving our jobs to start Studio Zerbey. We admit that the blog has been neglected and I’m guessing Bailey feels the same, even though he now gets to spend ALL DAY, EVERY DAY with us. Just wanted to say thanks to those who have stayed with us in the thin times!

Although this blog will always include posts about our house (and Bailey and Avery), we hope to write more about our professional work as architects. We still have plenty of chezerbey projects to complete, but most of our “design time” these days is spent working for our clients.

3-Studio Zerbey -Exterior 1

Like this one, a new house in the mid-century Hilltop neighborhood east of Seattle. I started the project three years ago with my former employer, Balance Associates, but then the project went on hiatus for a bit. When I joined Lauren last year, the project was transferred to Studio Zerbey and construction is scheduled to begin in a few months.

Every project starts with the client and the building site. These clients are highly organized and began their project by presenting me with a 40+ page booklet about architecture that they admired with detailed descriptions of what they did and didn’t like. Not only were they organized, but they have also been easy to work with. Win, Win.

Unfortunately, their building site was a problem from the beginning and the most difficult site I’ve ever designed for (and there have been some doozies). It was the last empty lot in the architecturally significant Hilltop community in Bellevue, Washington and it was undeveloped for a reason. Actually, at least two previous owners (with their architects) had failed to build on this lot after either being turned down for permits or rejected by the community review board! This site had almost every problem you could think of including a steep slope, wetland and a stream. To make matters worse we also had to fit a septic system on the site and keep it away from the wetland and stream. Really, we spent the first two years working with the planning department to get several variances and permits. The process required detailed surveys and hiring a wetland consultant, geotechnical engineer, structural engineer and septic designer. After a drawn-out and mostly frustrating process we finally came up with a design that made everyone happy and were issued our permits! (As a part of the project we’ll be improving the site by removing invasive species and doing some new native plantings, while maintaining the wetland and stream.)

The Hilltop community is like something I’ve never seen before which deserves a brief introduction of its own. This early 1950’s photo below is of some of the founders who planned the community (notice Mt Rainier in the background).

Black and white images from UW Libraries Digital Collection, as linked in this Seattle Times article.

original planners

The photo below is from around 1955 and shows homes under construction and the simple circular drive through the neighborhood.

aerial view

Hilltop (as it’s commonly called) is comprised of 40 very carefully planned building sites (of larger than average size for the area) and they all have very well-preserved views. This old hand-drafted site plan of a “Tree-View Map” below is still used today by the community review board to approve remodels or in our singular case, new construction. The basic layout of the community is a circular drive with the highest elevations inside the circle. Most of the homes I’ve visited in the development also have nature trails that lead from one house to the next.

small site map

Most of the original homes were designed by architects who would later be known as pioneers of the Pacific Northwest modern style including, but not limited to, Perry Johanson, Fred Bassetti, Paul Hayden Kirk, Roland Terry, John Morse, and Wendell Lovett. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone on this list, but you get the idea. The opportunity to design a house in a neighborhood already brimming with unique homes is something we did not take lightly.

On two separate occasions, I was required to present my designs to the community review board. There were around 20 or so neighbors at each of the meetings and it was obvious that they cared deeply about our design and how it could impact their lives. On top of the permitting requirements, the community has its own very stringent design guidelines, which limit building height and placement on the site, not to mention an unofficial aesthetic judgment. I was relieved when they approved our design after the second meeting!

So, onto the design already…if it’s not completely obvious, these are renderings that I created with my fancy new computer and not the actual building. We’re in the process of interviewing general contractors and will start construction this Spring! The background photos are actual views from and around the site. Did I mention that the site has panoramic views of Lake Washington, Mercer Island, and parts of downtown Seattle?

2-Studio Zerbey -Exterior 2

The tall Douglas Fir tree in many of these exterior views has been affectionately named Earl by the clients. Thanks to the Hilltop community for preserving this particular tree. Earl is awesome.

The north side of the house shown below was required to be held up off the ground to meet setback requirements from the septic field. It’s an unconventional building solution but it works. Materials here include dark grey stained cedar siding, Parklex panels, and architectural concrete.

3-north cropped-LANDSCAPE

In keeping with the community design, we opted for wood windows. I know, I know…maintenance you say. Well, we’re only using them were we have very large overhangs and they’ll be treated with a durable finish. The rest of the house that does not have generous roof overhangs will have metal clad wood windows, so metal on the outside and wood on the inside.

1-Studio Zerbey -Exterior 1

Entry courtyard below, it’s really the only yard space we can claim because of the wetland, stream, steep slope, and septic.

4-Studio Zerbey -Exterior 4

Here are three renderings of the same view. I originally just did the day and night shot for the client and then they sent me the background photo in the third image, on a day when the clouds were especially low.

5-Studio Zerbey -Interior 1

6-Studio Zerbey -Interior 2

house in the clouds

Below are the floor plans, which show that the house is relatively modest in size and will be one of the smallest in the neighborhood.



View from the main deck into the great room:

7-Studio Zerbey -Interior 3

View from the great room looking at the kitchen:

8-Studio Zerbey -Interior 4

Another view of the kitchen:

9-Studio Zerbey -Interior 5

Custom fireplace and living space (Yeah, that’s me and Bailey hanging out on the deck. Maybe.):

10-Studio Zerbey -Interior 6

Master bathroom with lots of overhead natural light:

11-Studio Zerbey -Interior 7

Master bedroom looking out towards Mercer Island and Lake Washington:

12-Studio Zerbey -Interior 8

If you’re interested in reading more about the Hilltop community you should check out these articles by Dean Stahl of the Seattle Times and Kurt Clark of the Bellevue PI. A big thanks to them for keeping up with the history and to my clients for being so patient and great to work with. We’re excited for construction to begin!