Jim Olson says he always wanted to be an architect or an artist, but his parents told him “architecture would be more practical.” A graduate of the University of Washington, he now runs the Seattle firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, of which he’s the founding partner.
“My first job was designing a garden trellis,” he says.
In 1959, his first year in architecture school, his parents gave him $500, “which is more like $5,000 today,” to build himself his own small cabin on the Key Peninsula, no larger than a small studio apartment. From this space, which he has since added onto as his family home-away-from-home, he would sketch out ideas for hours on end. Unlike today’s highly technological world, “no one had even dreamed of CAD [computer-aided design], everything was done with pencil and paper,” he says.
After successfully completing his first job, word of mouth spread about his work until a client by the name of Jim Penfield, a former ambassador, invited him to design his family home on the Key Peninsula.
At the time, Penfield and his family lived in London. Olson sent hand-drawn sketches to them by mail, and they’d send them back with handwritten notes. Olson came up with a design that, by today’s standards, would be considered an example of sustainable architecture. The sod roof not only insulates the house extraordinarily well, it’s like a natural extension of the hill behind it, sweeping toward Mount Rainier across the water.
Basing the design on the notion that a house should be a safe dwelling or refuge, that in our basic nature humans require a place free from predators, Olson came up with what is now called the “Earth House.” It’s made of cedar, with large “imaginary” windows that make you feel as if you could walk right out into the open. Today, as the environment moves higher and higher on people’s list of priorities, Olson finds more demand from his clients for buildings such as that one; sustainable architecture is no longer categorized as a “hippie” endeavor like it was when he began work on the house in 1969.
At the moment, he says he has at least five different projects requesting sod roof houses. More people want low-energy windows, recycling, natural ventilation systems rather than air conditioning, even recycled or environmentally sustainable materials, such as certified wood. As he began adding onto his own original space, he made the decision to use only certified wood. Even though it costs much more, it was a choice he and his family decided to make.
Nature has a great influence on Olson’s work. He works with the environment, creating spaces that flow into the natural surroundings. Sometimes this can be literally. At his own home, he has built around large standing trees, incorporating them into the walls. He also believes that art is a key element to our living space.
Although many of his clients come with their own art collections, Olson also commissions muralists or sculptors to create pieces that will give the space presence. To him, an architect is like an artist— even though an architect makes compromises in order to appease the client’s own tastes, an architect has to like his work.
“It’s the only reason you do it,” he says. Perhaps, this is part of the reason he shies away from using such staple programs like CAD himself, leaving that to the younger generation.
“I’ll draw something, and they’ll bring it up on the computer, and I’ll sketch over the top of it,” but the computer still doesn’t manage to communicate the ideas as well as a pen in hand can, he says.
Olson thrives on juggling 10 projects at a time. He is currently working on homes in Hong Kong, Arizona, and Boston; museums in Los Angeles and Chicago; and he just completed homes in Hawaii and Georgia. Locally, he is trying to remodel the Key Peninsula Historical Society, and schematic designs for the Historical Museum in Gig Harbor, which were put on hold after the attacks of Sept. 11 but are now getting back under way.
“I’m on an airplane more than anything,” he says. When he is here, he divides his time between life in Seattle during the workweek, and his private home on the Key Peninsula. His home rests on the same piece of property his grandparents settled on in 1912 and where his parents lived, and likely his children or grandchildren will one day live there. Although he appreciates the back and forth of it all, “being out here really is heaven on earth; it clears your mind,” he says.