Architecture Magazine

Compact, Efficient Comfort: Visiting the Harpoon House

By Brianlibby

Harpoon House (photo courtesy Design For Occupancy)


If I were to use the phrase, "700 square foot residence," one might expect it to be an apartment. And indeed, just a few years ago Matt Kirkpatrick and Katherine Bovee lived in a Southeast Portland apartment of that size. But now, they live in and own a 704-square foot house, complete with a basement, a root cellar, an outdoor deck, and a vegetable and herb garden. It's a far cry from the average modern American house, which was 2,349 square feet in 2004, although the Harpoon House is not too dissimilar in size to the average in 1950 for a single-family house: 983 square feet.

Tall and thin like a small wood-ensconced tower at 16 feet long, 28 feet wide and 28 feet tall, the Harpoon House is also a striking design, like a geometric sculpture born from our rainy, woodsy climate. By this point the Harpoon House, designed by Kirkpatrick's firm, Design For Occupancy, has been covered in magazines from Dwell to Portland Monthly. But recently, I paid my own visit to the project and came away just as impressed.

Our area has long been known for Northwest Modern homes, dating back to the designs of John Yeon and Pietro Belluschi in the 1930s that fist blended Bauhaus-style glass boxes with the wood construction, pitched roofs and overhangs appropriate to the Oregon climate and other influences such as Japanese and Scandinavian design. The Harpoon House is a departure from that tradition in some ways, being multistory with a flat roof. But it's all Northwest in spirit. Belluschi and Yeon would have built this way - efficient and compact yet still soulfully woodsy Oregon - were they working architects today.

Built on a 50-by-50-foot lot that previously was the side yard of the house next door, the Harpoon is a series of stacked spaces; one walks up a half-flight of stairs to the combined living-dining area with windows wrapping around a wall of built-in shelving. Upstairs just one doorless bedroom space in which the double bed sits at eye level above an open closet. Half of the upstairs was reserved for an outdoor deck, which is partially enclosed by lattice-like wood that drapes its perimeter and completes the rectangular shape of the tower. Recalling minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, the rigidry of the open-box geometry guides the eye not just to its outer shape, but the volumes inside.


Views from the bedroom and kitchen (photos by Brian Libby)

Now that some time has passed since the Harpoon House's initial construction, its exterior wood has been allowed to age, something usually undesirable (and why wood exteriors are usually painted rather than stained). The result is a constantly changing surface with nuanced beauty. "Early in the process when developing the initial concept for our house we were really interested in the idea of aging gracefully," Matt Kirkpatrick writes on the Harpoon House's blog, "and that certain materials, when allowed to show their age, can be extremely long lived with very little maintenance. I’ve been noticing lately that this aging has begun to happen in a very visible way."

As if the Harpoon weren't impressive enough as beautiful architecture and demonstratively compact, not-so-big living, it's also the recipient of the top-level Platinum LEED designation from the US Green Building Council. Its features include a 433-square-foot eco roof, which diverts rainwater runoff in winter and keeps heat out in summer, and structurally insulated panels that provide efficient insulation. Windows are triple-pane and the wood floors are FSC-certified.

Living room at Harpoon House (photo by Brian Libby)

"Sustainability at Harpoon House is not: a green-washed interior, a checklist of eco-gadgets, an exorbitant budget or a pat on the back," Kirkpatrick write on the Harpoon House website. "Sustainability means smart design and an integrated approach to planning, designing, building and living. Our house went counter to many of the assumptions that LEED for homes takes (heating load too small for mini-split heat pumps, no landscape irrigation), but through a few appeals we were able to proceed. Its exciting that despite the setbacks, and without currently having any power generation, smart design was able win us a Platinum rating."

That said, Kirkpatrick and Bovee have been considering solar power for their roof, which would compete for space with the eco-roof plants but, according to research by Portland State University, may actually aid some of the native plants by providing extra shade. "We are looking at a 1.785KW array that will cover about a quarter of our total energy needs, and this has a total installed cost of roughly $11,500," Kirkpatrick writes. But after incentives from the Energy Trust of Oregon as well as federal and state government tax credits, the solar panel will only cost about $2,200. It would provide about one-fourth of the house's total energy needs, and the payback would be about 10 years, meaning in a decade a quarter of their power will be free.

The homeowners also note that with their Buckman neighborhood seeking to become a national historic district, they feel compelled to invest in the solar array now, fearing the new strictures would add layers of cost and red tape that would make the panel setup unfeasible afterward. Which is unfortunate to read, becuase historic districts also do great amounts of good in preserving architectual character in neighborhoods. Can't there be a balance struck between preserving history and allowing modernity to be placed on top of it? Before the days of cable and satellite television, plenty of old houses used to have TV antennas mounted on their roofs, and they didn't break historic-district rules. Solar panels ought to be the same way.

Harpoon House (photo by Lincoln Barbour for Portland Monthly)

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