South Seattle Shipping Container Office


Two shipping containers are getting a new life in Georgetown – as a backyard office for our busy client!

This project has been a long time coming, but it didn’t originally start out as a container structure. We first studied it as a garage remodel, but seismically unstable soil conditions prevented following through on this approach. We needed something that was intrinsically sound.

This project is driven by material reuse, living small, and building green. There exists a backyard garage/shed original to the 1928 house that the “remodel” scheme originally looked at building over with a timber “exo-skeleton”, and a “new” scheme replaced it entirely. But we needed to find a more economical, resourceful, geotechnically-stable, and environmentally-friendly option, and shipping containers hit the mark! Without the need for siding, roofing, or structure, this project saves three large budget numbers right off the bat; it even comes with flooring if you purchase a container in decent condition. We chose “one-trip” containers for this project so they weren’t new off the shelf, but haven’t been damaged by countless trips across the sea.

Having justified our choice of “material”, the most difficult part of the project began: research. Shipping container building isn’t taught in a classroom or in a textbook, and it is still scarcely available online. We relied on the help of a few local experts to get us started. Cantilevering the containers turned out to be much simpler than we anticipated; we were presented with only a few sheets of engineering plans and a handful of details for the entire project. The shipping container supplier will complete all steel modifications on site, i.e. window openings, steel strengthening, etc. before the containers are delivered, and the interiors can even be pre-fabricated so that once on site, only assembly is required!

A particular aspect of this property did indeed make the planning more difficult, yet provided its own solution. Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood is entirely within a liquefaction zone, meaning that during a seismic event the ground will liquefy and structures can be seriously compromised (Think: cars and homes halfway submerged in the ground after the soils re-solidify). All parties, including the city, wanted to make sure that life safety was guaranteed. The structural and geotechnical engineers designed a 18″ thick concrete mat slab that will effectively allow the structure to float relatively intact during any seismic activity. The fact that the shipping containers might once again “float” was not lost on us!

Complete with a green roof, this backyard office will be a respite away from the working world, while also fitting in with the industrial aesthetics of the Georgetown neighborhood. In the lower container, a side door leads to a bathroom with a shower and a kitchenette with a view of the green urban jungle that our owner meticulously maintains in his backyard! The south side of the container will be an unheated storage space accessed by using the actual container doors. The upper container is accessed by an exterior stair and small deck. From the deck you can either climb to the upper roof deck to tend the gardens or enter the upper container: a full-length office space, surrounded by warm-toned birch ply walls.

Not surprisingly, not every project has the need, desire, or property available to build a 2-story cantilevered shipping container in their backyard; we’re quite excited to see the final product! Stay tuned for photos as the project takes shape in the real world. Construction is expected to start February 2018.


Contemporary Washington Cabin

We’re very excited to see construction start on our latest vacation home! This family retreat sits high on a bluff looking over mountains, vast orchards and vineyards in every direction.

Our architectural design takes advantage of unobstructed southern exposure, which also provides the best view of the austere scenery. Huge folding glass doors connect the great rooms (living areas, dining and kitchen) to the views and outdoors, flanked by a bedroom wing on one side, and garage and studio on the other. This configuration creates an outdoor patio space that is sheltered from frequent strong winds, framing the spectacular views. In such a vast landscape that sees extreme weather variance, we felt the architecture of this house should be low and close to the ground, incorporating elements that withstand high winds, beating sun, and heavy snows. Materials are simple and natural, allowing the structure to blend into its surroundings: stained wood, concrete, glass, and metal roof.


The house is a contemporary wood-frame structure with a very dominant roof element made of Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs). These are prefabricated, insulated panels that are trucked in and craned up onto the roof framing, enabling the roof to be completed in a very short time.  The panels allow for large overhangs, desirable for shading of sun in this hot, dry summer climate.

Public spaces in the home have a high roof, allowing for maximum light; the bedroom wing has a lower roof, creating spaces that are more private and intimate in feeling. Below, you can see the glu-lam joists, with their protective covers almost completely removed.

A local contractor is building this project; stay tuned on progress with us as he sends us photos with progress updates!

Mid-Century Modern in Seattle: Tips on Transforming a Typical 60’s Rambler

As we have been remodeling so many Mid-Century Modern homes, we thought we’d highlight a few remodels that demonstrate our Mid-Century values. Owning a 60’s era homes usually means our client has an appreciation for the architectural features of the house; it becomes important to honor or even highlight these classic mid-century features when updating the house. 

This translates to several things when we think about design moves: exposing structural elements; creating open spaces that are light and airy; providing textural interest in materials; and connection with the landscape (inside-outside connections). Structure and materials are the two key disciplines of the period – and disciplined we must be when considering a true-to-the-period remodel.

An example of retaining values might be maintaining proper proportions and massing when redesigning a more contemporary roof, replacing a solid wall with an exposed column and beam, or emphasizing horizontal elements when designing new siding or interior trim. An important design value we stick to is subtlety. We think the architecture should speak for itself without a lot of extraneous embellishment. Click on the links for more information about each project.


This is a whole-house interior remodel where we replaced windows and siding to refresh its mid-century exterior. We removed the 60’s masonry veneer; it had caused rot behind, and was obviously a faux-rock veneer that simply wasn’t very appealing. Keeping the deep, upper horizontal siding, we created a stepped sill-band with even deeper, heavier horizontal siding below for a more contemporary, yet still mid-century look. The heavier element at the base of the house, stained dark, helps to “seat” the house into its wooded landscape better than before.

In this whole-house remodel, the white, bright nature of the original structure had the negative effect of making the house read like a big, bright shoebox plopped down in its lovely wooded setting. We stripped off all the siding and 60’s rock veneer and replaced it with a combination of dark-stained cedar siding at lower, and panel & batten at upper areas. The intention was to reinforce the horizontal-ness of the house, and also to nestle the structure into its natural landscape by using dark, earth-like colours. Even the new windows are dark-coloured, and feature mid-century horizontal divided lights.

img20160420_11531548Yarrow Creek Rambler | CTA Design Builders 1

In the rear corner of the same house, we actually subtracted floor area!  A plain window in the corner gave way to a covered deck that wraps around the house and projects into the landscape, creating a very strong indoor/outdoor connection. The heavy timber post and beams are exposed, reinforcing the clarity of the simple yet powerful structure.

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Subtractions of walls in key locations can strengthen the contemporary feelings of openness, while maintaining the architect’s intentions. In this house, we removed walls, or parts of them, to create better daylight throughout the house. In this photo, see how we deconstructed the wall adjacent to the stairwell, leaving a structural column showing above the top of the wall.  This move helps to dematerialize the interior walls, accenting structure, creating simple planes, and increasing the sense of open daylight throughout the interior.

And as a parting note: especially for those approaching-60 year old homes needing utility remodels, we prefer to retrofit sustainability rather than adding it. Using the home’s own resources before slapping on solar panels or a “green” HVAC system is always the best solution in the long run; i.e. bumping up the R-value of a roof or switching from single to double-glazed windows. The goal is to significantly reduce energy costs, rather than inserting a new system that will just leak heat and air out of a poorly insulated home. Considering both the internal workings as well as the design and aesthetics in a home will always give the best result!

Update on CTA’s work in Haiti

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Our Architects Without Borders project, a large campus-style secondary and trade school outside of Cabaret, Haiti, is coming to a conclusion! 

We’ve been working for over a year to provide drawings and images for the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, our client and current administer of eight other schools throughout Haiti.  These images describe a large, rural, 3,000 student campus-style secondary and trade school.  The program includes classroom buildings, science labs, and shop space, along with dormitories, a chapel, auditorium, and cafeteria.  

Community and sustainability are hallmarks of this project – fundamental ideas inherent in the campus layout that impact the landscape and building designs. 

Such a school would provide a continuous stream of graduates, bringing the benefits of an educated population into the community, affecting both the immediate area of Cabaret, and Haiti, country-wide.  It is our hope that these drawings will help the Brothers describe their vision of this community to potential partners and funders.

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The drawings show a campus arranged in identifiable and interconnected communities, drawing on historical “lakou” arrangements found in rural Haiti.  The architecture further shows buildings and a landscape utilizing sustainable design concepts.  Our project aims to revitalize the landscape; to capture and direct water with streambeds and cisterns; to provide learning and engagement opportunities to students, staff, and guests. 

Buzz is the Project Manager for the project, aided by a competent and committed team of volunteers.  CTA Design Builders is pleased to have provided meeting space and support services.

Please feel free to view the project below.  The introduction explains our goals and identifies our team members, and the following pages present the project in terms of what we have to work with, how we will do it, and what it all will look and feel like.

  Concept Package for Canado school in Caberet, Haiti

Forest Retreat House

At CTA Builds we’re pretty excited about our new “forest retreat” — this new house is situated in a large 2nd growth wooded parcel overlooking Puget Sound. We’ve designed what we hope is a timeless but contemporary lodge-like house, an architecture reminiscent of the early 20th Century National Park lodges, like Timberline at Mount Hood and Paradise at Mount Rainier. As you travel the driveway that purposefully circumvents the site, you get glimpses of a view but then first see the home with it’s masonry base, stained wood shingles, and metal roofing.  Arrival reveals how the house and the detached garage/studio creates both an arrival and greeting area;  inside you see large fireplaces, a double volume interior space, natural fir trim, steel and wood railing systems, a host of sustainable building materials, and an open and connected floor plan. Through big steel sliding glass doors in the “back”,  there are decks with large overhangs so you can stand out and enjoy the view of the Sound and mountains beyond, or grille in any weather. Strategically placed windows capture the sun through the trees, so that even in the forest, you can enjoy a light filled home throughout the day.

Speed Design – Buying a House in a Fast Real Estate Market

“Speed Design” – Efficiency is Key in this Fast Market

It’s a pretty crazy real estate market these days. Many older homes in the metropolitan Seattle area are getting multiple offers with escalation clauses and bidding wars once again. There are not a whole lot of houses available for sale and so when  house come on the market, it seems like everyone is interested!  Sometimes a house will come on the market on a Wednesday and “offers are accepted” the following Tuesday. This leaves buyers without much time to make decisions, and less time to really understand what they can do with their homes.  That’s where we can help — that’s where design-build can really help. As experienced Seattle architects and as skilled contractors, we can look at a potential house and put together a design and a cost pretty quickly — sometimes, right on the spot. Then our client, the buyer, will know whether it’s feasible to improve the property and how much it will cost. Good information for a buyer in a rush!

We’ve done several of the “Speed Design” concept lately

Queen Anne, Wedgwood, and Bellevue have been the most common for the Speed Design”. Potential owners were looking at houses in the $400K-$700K range and needed to know how much opening the plan and creating a new kitchen would cost, or how much a second story would cost, or how much a two story addition would cost.  We were able to brainstorm ideas at the property and rough price them.  In several of the cases, we sketched out plans and priced them so the owners could see what they were getting and how much it would cost.

The $415K house became a $650 finished house; the $650K house became a large two story 1.1M house, and the $525K house became a much more open,  larger and contemporary $850K finished family home.  As it turned out, these were better deals than the equivalent priced houses because not only were there additions, but the rest of the house house was upgraded as well.


Inspiration, Empowerment & Architecture

Our team at Architects Without Borders have taken on a project to design a school in a particularly impoverished area outside of Port Au Prince, Haiti. We have just finished the first phase of our work which is to provide our client, a private non-profit foundation, a brochure that talks about the project and presents ideas on how to achieve certain goals. Our client will be using this brochure in fundraising activities and in getting the local community excited about the possibilities that lay before them. Our first task has been to figure out what is needed and then we work on how to go about doing this.

But the school is more than a school as we know it – it is of course a place of learning, but it is also a truly sustainable refuge, soundly built with local labor and materials; that teaches health and hygiene; a landscape that cools, that teaches; and a series of buildings that optimize the equatorial sun for energy and captures the abundant rain for washing, for drinking, and recycles wastes; a place that by its design creates community with gathering spaces to foster exchange; and a thoughtful architecture, that truly INSPIRES…

We consider all of this “Empowerment through Design”.

Below is the full project brief.

Empowerment Through Design by CTA Design Builders


Before Architecture can help

Architects Without Borders: Before Architecture Can Help

We’re Seattle architects working on a new school project in Haiti, in a particularly underserved community. As part of the Architects Without Borders team, we itch to get started designing, but we realize that we live such a different life here we must know what it’s like living there, to work there, to go to school there.  We don’t want to design a school for North America and plop it down in the middle of a different and unaccepting world.  So as we learn, we begin to see that we have to back up, way up, to the point where the basics are not what we’re used to, they are survival:  we have to understand such things as where the CLEAN water is going to come from, what to do with human wastes, how we can provide electrical power, how and by whom the school would get built, etc.  As idealists, we think of municipal services providing water, not digging a well on site, away from contaminants; we think about composting toilets, but we have never cleaned one; we think of photovoltaic electric not realizing how much cheaper a generator and some gasoline is; we think the community will pitch in with their sweat equity, but we’re not working earning $7-12/day and having to decide whether to feed our family or build a school… First things first, and as we solve these problems, we’ll move on to designing a school.

Here is a great article about our experience: Haiti Rebuilding Effort – AWB

Lodge House

Approaching the lodge house…

there’s a sense, an architecture of timelessness, something that’s been here for a while and something that will be for a while yet, a place to sit by the fire under the structural timbers. The new house is in the woods with a long view capturing Puget Sound, so lots of windows to take in the light and to see out through the trees to the view. There are shed overhangs so you’re protected from the rain, a metal roof to cast off the inevitable tree debris, a mudroom for your boots & shoes, an open loft with a cathedral ceiling so the upper and lower spaces can relate with a touch of drama! There’s also a master suite plus two bedrooms with an unfinished basement. Construction is expected to commence this fall, 2012.

Info on The San Juan Islands

More updates on our Lodge House coming soon

Architects Without Borders

Architects Without Borders and CTA Builds

I’ve recently teamed up with “Architects Without Borders” ( as a Project Manager.  In this role I’m able to give back a little where my skills are needed in our world, and draw on my experience as an architect, a builder, and a student of sustainability. Currently this means designing a school outside of Port Au Prince, Haiti.  It’s an awesome project and an awesome responsibility.  We’re designing this school that will not only educate children, but will help build community at a time when it’s most needed.  At the same time this project will demonstrate what community and sustainability really mean:  a place to learn built by local craftspeople using local materials, a place to gather, to grow food and eat together, to get one’s electricity from the sun, to not pollute but to reuse our wastes (composting toilets), to conserve water and maybe even recharge aquifers, to re-vitalize the soil, the ground…  It’s very exciting, and from time to time, I will post our progress on the blog.  For this first posting, sitting on the building site are students, parents, and the new principal of the school, mapping out the future. — Buzz T.