Q&A: Tom Kundig on Why Buildings Should Move and Morph

Tom Kundig may be best known for his monolithic Pacific Northwest homes cast in concrete and weathered steel—but his body of work is much broader than that. His massive new monograph, Working Title, explores 29 projects in diverse landscapes, locations, and typologies—from a jewel box home in Hawaii to an office tower in Seoul and a natural history museum in Seattle.

On the occasion of the book’s launch, we chatted with Kundig about the River House, a residence in Ketchum, Idaho, that’s packed with movable elements and made from robust materials that will weather beautifully over time. Read on for a look at this landmark home, published exclusively here for the first time.

Photo captions excerpted from Tom Kundig: Working Title, published by Princeton Architectural Press and available June 2020.

This compact home balances privacy and transparency, with a neighborhood road on one side and a forested riverbank on the other.

The shallow 60-foot-wide site demanded a nimble transition between these two opposing faces. 

Working Title is your fourth book—how would you say your practice has evolved over time? 

It’s certainly diversified. This book highlights the way my design practice has branched out into many different areas—I’m working in new parts of the world, new landscapes, new building types. I think the scale of the projects in this book might surprise people who know me as a residential designer. The book includes wineries, office buildings, hospitality, a museum. 

In that way it traces a kind of trajectory in my career. But I hope what comes across is that all of my work—large and small, residential and non-residential—is informed by my earlier work designing small residential buildings set within big landscapes. Those essential characteristics are a constant thread throughout every project.  

The design solution was to soften the concrete and weathering steel walls of the street-facing side with punctuated moments of transparency and overhead daylighting.

The other half of the home opens almost completely to the natural landscape, extending the livable space outdoors to the Big Wood River.

The River House incorporates two of your signature materials: concrete and weathered steel. Can you tell us about the significance these materials hold for you, and how they serve this project in particular?

My approach prioritizes the honest use of materials and expresses the tectonics of materiality. I like concrete and weathered steel because they’re resilient and long-lasting materials, ideal for a site like this where the environment can be very demanding.

In addition, as they age, they continue to shift and change, displaying a sense of history and place. At River House, those materials will settle into the landscape with time, an important consideration for a project that’s so much about being in tune with its surroundings. That sensitivity to integration, combined with the natural resilience of these materials, will help ensure that River House stands the test of time.

The home is designed for natural ventilation and shading with manually operated windows and window walls, and deep overhangs.

Several gizmos, including a corner guillotine window in the kitchen that opens to a walk-up bar, allow the owner to break down the barrier between indoors and outdoors.

Hand-operated gizmos are another key aspect in many of your projects—why do you choose to incorporate manual devices instead of automated systems?

Kinetic architecture, like the hand-operated gizmos you mention, is important to me because I believe buildings should be adjusted and changed by the people who use them. It’s most interesting to me to see how people morph a building and how it evolves over time. I don’t think that buildings should be static—they should be as changeable as possible.

“I don’t think that buildings should be static—they should be as changeable as possible.” —Tom Kundig

They also serve to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, allowing users to engage with the world outside of their home, whether that landscape is rural or urban. Using manual devices to activate the building directly connects users to the built environment around them and, by extension, the surrounding context. When you can physically interact with structures—move, morph and change them—it alters and enhances the way you experience a building. 

Dual-sided floor-to-ceiling glazing in the central interior walkway lends the sense that one is walking through the natural landscape, even inside the home.

Deciduous birch and ash trees provide natural shade in the summer and allow sun exposure in the winter.

What was the biggest challenge in designing the River House?

River House occupies a very narrow lot between a mountain river—prone to flooding, sometimes quite dramatically—and a fairly well-traveled country road. Responding to both of those conditions was a challenge, but also an opportunity to develop something interesting. Ultimately River House navigates both of those constraints, resulting in a home that feels very gracious on the site while still respecting the natural landscape.

A low-slope roof is designed to hold snowpack in winter, providing additional insulation. 

Durable, long-lasting exterior materials of concrete and weathering steel were chosen to withstand the climate extremes in Ketchum, Idaho, and require minimal maintenance.

Which aspect of the River House’s design are you most proud of?

I’m certainly proud of the way the design balances the many constraints—the small site, the road, the river—in an elegant, rational solution that responded to the client’s goals for the home. It’s visually and acoustically protected on the more “public,” street-front side, but still captures natural daylight for a bright interior experience. It maximizes connections to the landscape and the river, making those indoor/outdoor transitions incredibly easy. At the same time, River House acknowledges that the surroundings can be quite harsh—spring flooding, icy winter conditions—and the building can also be strong and protective when needed. 

The River House spans 3,100 square feet, with 500 additional square feet of exterior deck and patio space.

The river house was completed in 2017.

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