written by Melissa Dalton
Many city dwellers fantasize about having an outdoor room in their backyard—a place to cook, eat and relax in the open air. When the owners of a 1929 Tudor in the Montlake neighborhood of Seattle decided to build their backyard studio, their vision was a little different. “They own a bookstore, so they really wanted a reading spot and a place where they could be quiet,” architect Ryan Adanalian said.
Adanalian joined a design team from local firm Board & Vellum, alongside Proform Construction, to fashion a small-scale sanctuary that packs a lot of function into its 169 square feet, including a reading room, sleeping nook and full-sized bathroom with access to an outdoor sauna.
On the first site visit in 2015, a sea of blackberry bushes and invasive plants covered the yard, which had successfully prevented the homeowners from ever venturing out back. “They weren’t using it before,” Adanalian said. “I think even the lawn mower was covered in plants.” Once the bramble was removed, the team assessed what it had to work with on a lot that’s a little more than 1,000 square feet shy of the typical 5,000-square-foot Seattle allotment. When constructing outbuildings like this one, city code determines how big the structure can be. “We’re only allowed a certain percentage of lot for coverage, so we pretty much maxed it out,” Adanalian said of the new building’s petite footprint.
An additional constraint was the neighbor’s towering cedar tree, identified by the city as an “exceptional tree.” Exceptional trees are deemed rare due to size, species, age or cultural significance. City code stipulates new buildings can’t encroach inside the inner half of the tree’s dripline, which is measured as the outer circumference of the canopy. Leaving this clear protects the root system. This essentially generated a “no-build zone” for a portion of the yard, which the team translated into a design feature. They defined the edges of the backyard’s hardscaping, including a planter, patio and small deck, with a graceful elliptical curve that also denotes the tree’s protected dripline. By running that arc through several materials, from steel to concrete to wood, it draws the eye into the site and to the new building at the back.
For the building’s design, the homeowners envisioned something that felt like it could have evolved over the years, almost like a shed at the edge of the property that had been modernized. “As far as the design goes, they wanted an interesting mix between a found object-modern structure,” interior designer Katie Mallory said. The design team responded with a simple shed-roofed form layered with a three-sided glass cube at the front. The exterior siding wraps into the interior, further blending the perception of old and new, inside and out.
For interior finishes, Mallory kept the palette consistent by specifying the same tile flooring from the front door to the shower enclosure and matching the color of the shelves to the bathroom vanity. Then she punched up the look with graphic floor-to-ceiling wall tile in the shower, custom lighting fixtures and wallpaper lining the ceiling of the book nook for a fun surprise. “We wanted to keep it feeling interesting, but not have so much going on where it felt busy and made it feel smaller,” Mallory said.
“Little tricks” enabled the team to save space where possible. To that end, the bathroom received integrated hardware, a wall-hung toilet and a floating vanity, while built-in bookshelves and a cozy window seat line the reading room. When it comes to incorporating function into a small space, built-ins offer “a lot of bang for your buck,” Mallory said. Adanalian even designed a custom bunk ladder with side rails that collapse together when not in use.
Lots of glass extends the eye beyond the building’s walls, whether to the three-sided vestibule, or the skylight and clerestory windows in the loft. “When you’re up there, even though it’s a low ceiling height, you don’t feel like it’s right at your head because you have that glazing to the sky above,” Mallory said. Landscape architect Derek Reeves specified a Pacific Fire vine maple to compose the view through the picture window, so “the landscape really and truly is an extension of the interior space,” Mallory said. “It makes that little shed feel bigger than it is.”
Reeves also carefully thought about material changes in the hardscaping to create spatial definition without cluttering the small yard. “It’s really easy in a tiny backyard to have things looking a little too busy or fussy,” Reeves said. “We tried to do minimal materials and minimal grade change.” Now, a patio composed of concrete pavers is accented with Ipe wood elements in the fence, low-lying decks and seating. One deck placed at the back of the reading retreat connects the building to a separate sauna. Inset plantings there make the deck feel as though “you’re crossing a boardwalk or bridge,” Reeves said. “That makes it feel not as squashed even though it’s a small space.”
At the beginning of the project, the yard’s slope made it seem as though there wasn’t much square footage, until the team “ironed out the space,” Reeves said, by leveling the grade. Doing so created enough room to include other things on the homeowners’ wish list, such as a built-in wood sectional surrounding a firepit and a hot tub tucked out of sight. “What that did was open up the opportunity to host different gatherings, whether that’s dinner parties or just lounging by the fire feature,” Reeves said. Those features now “bridge the gap with entertainment space” on the way to the reading retreat.
Construction wrapped in 2018, at which point the shelves were filled with the homeowners’ favorite tomes and a comfy reading chair was put into place. Strategic lighting makes the reading retreat glow like a jewel box in the landscape, beckoning in even the worst storm. “The homeowners said that they like to go out there when it’s really crazy weather,” Adanalian said. “Just to hang out and get cozy and read.”