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An Epic Plot

Architect Steve Bull designed a high-impact, low-maintenance home for a pair of intrepid clients in Alaska, but that was only the beginning of the adventure.

Working as ER doctors at a hospital in eastern Anchorage, Alaska, Tanya Leinicke and Rick Navitsky are accustomed to high-pressure situations, like ministering to the aftereffects of moose stompings and bear maulings. So when two stressful events intersected at the same moment in the couple’s life—a political revolution in Nepal jeopardized their adoption of a son just as the design and con­struc­tion of their 2,100-square-foot house ramped up—they handled the situation with an uncommon meas­ure of grace and perspective. Four years later, the couple told us how it all began—and how hiring the right architect made all the difference.

Navitsky: We came to Alaska from New Mexico in 2001, not necessarily to make it our home, but for adventure.

Leinicke: I had to pay back my Air Force scholarship to medical school, so I worked at the Air Force base in Anchorage for four years. We fell in love with the place. Every time you go outdoors you feel like you’re in a National Geographic article. And the community’s very strong. Alaska’s still the kind of place where if your car gets stuck in a ditch, three people will immediately stop to help you out.

Navitsky: We looked downtown for a house, but we weren’t able to find the right place. We wanted something small, efficient, and green, but also light and airy. Then a colleague told us about this property.

Leinicke: Land like this isn’t easy to stumble upon. We drove up, took a look, and were like, Whoa, we better buy this. Or somebody else will, quick.

Navitsky: On a clear day you can see the whole Anchorage bowl from here: Denali, the snow-covered Alaska Range, the three volcanoes to the west.

Leinicke: Finding an architect was easy. We had a close friend in Seattle who’s an architect and she recommended Steve Bull, the founder of Workshop AD. They’d worked together before, and she thought we’d be a good fit. We didn’t even talk to any other architects. That’s kind of how we are—we’re instinctual and we know a good thing when we see one.

At our first meeting, instead of asking us how we wanted our house to look, Steve asked us general questions about how we like to live our life. For example, he asked: “How do you like to spend the majority of your time?” We responded: “We like to play outside a lot, and we like to spend time with friends and family.” We told him we felt a family should be able to do different activities but all together. We also said we wanted to separate our bedrooms from our entertaining and play spaces—we work night shifts a lot, so we need a quiet place to sleep.

When we met again three weeks later, it was amazing how he’d incorporated our ideals and ways of living into a design. He created a house that feels like it’s outside, with large shared spaces and small individual areas. There’s a wing off the side, where the bedrooms and bathrooms are. It has a sliding door to accommodate our odd waking and sleeping hours. We can also shut it if someone shows up unannounced and there’s laundry all over.

Navitsky: As a Buddhist wannabe practitioner I wanted a space where I could meditate. Steve created a cantilevered room with tatami-mat floors and a low window that looks onto the birch grove. That’s our guest area as well—we have a pull-out futon.

Leinicke: Steve took our design education into his own hands. He discovered early on that we’re the kind of people who would rather take a free day to go rock climbing or on a long run with friends than to rip through design magazines. He totally respects that—he’s a cross-country ski fanatic and a crazy runner himself.

Navitsky: We mentioned liking Japanese architecture, so he brought us a few books and asked us to put tabs next to things that appealed to us. He also limited the choices for us—he’d hone in on a finite list of materials that he thought fit with our taste. He really made it easier.

Leinicke: At the same time as we chose Steve as our architect we started the adoption process. I think we sort of neglected to anticipate how involved we’d get in both efforts. Well into the design of the house we found out we could go to Nepal and meet our son—but because of political turmoil, we couldn’t take him home. So we started commuting between here and Kathmandu every six weeks. After our fourth visit we managed to push the adoption through. We got Suresh in February, and the house was done in March.

Navitsky: As a result, Steve probably had to be more hands-on during the building process than many architects.

Leinicke: In the end I think we benefited from that. Because we were gone so much, Steve had a lot of artistic freedom—and because of that a lot of great things happened in the house.

Navitsky: I have to say, we did not get stressed about building the house.

Leinicke: That’s the thing, when you rank your priorities—the child or the house—your child takes priority. It wasn’t as hard as you might expect. We love this house but at the same time we had this beautiful perspective. When you go to a place like Nepal, and all you can think about is your soon-to-be-son who lives in an orphanage, you suddenly realize how unimportant all the details are. You stop worrying about things like picking the right tile color. Fortunately, we picked the right architect.

For more photos of the house click here.