Committed Contemporaries

IF YOU STOP CHASING luck, sometimes it'll come find you. Just ask Dave Eck.

For Eck, 1985 was one of those valleys in life when familiar doors closed and no new ones opened. An important outlet for his handmade furniture had folded in Redmond. He was divorced. He had pulled out of an artists' coop gallery.

"Everything was a disaster," he recalls. When the calendar opened on a new year, the days were the same shade of gray.

Meanwhile, on Mercer Island, a couple who had bought one of Eck's handcrafted cupboards was thinking he would be the perfect man to design and fashion a new entry door and advise them on a little remodeling. Maybe over a weekend. The husband called Eck.

That request kicked off a collaborative relationship that continued, uninterrupted, for 13 years.

During that first visit to the Mercer Island house, Eck didn't intend to linger. He was an artist, after all, not a carpenter. But he and the homeowners got to talking and before long Eck was engaged in what was expected to be a fairly modest remodel. That was 1986. Ronald Reagan was in the White House.

At first, the couple wanted Eck to teach them how to do the work themselves. They had plans from different architects, but leaned to a nontraditional approach. Given the level of detail they wanted, they soon realized they needed someone with novel ideas and a spirit of adventure to guide the project - in short, Eck.

He was persuaded by their shared aesthetic and dedication to excellence.

You can see the proof of that communal passion throughout the 10,000-square-foot rambler, from metalwork around a fireplace to Eck's spiral staircase in a bedroom. Eck or his fellow artisans' handiwork and innovations are all through the house but blend well with what existed before.

You get a clear sense of the scale of Eck's accomplishment by entering the house as the owners normally do, not by that fateful front door but through the garage. From here, you walk directly into the swimming-pool pavilion - what the couple and Eck refer to as "Addition A."

There is a flagstone walk, a thicket of tropical plants and a 70-foot-long steel support beam disguised by wood sheathing. You halfway expect a waiter on skates to sail by with a tray of mai-tais.

The boutique-hotel atmosphere of Addition A is largely due to the durable surfaces (stone, copper, ceramic tile, hardwoods, glass) and near-30-foot height of the post-and-beam structure overhead (that alone took about two years to plan and implement). Scores of guests can gather at the bar, take a swim or sit at a patio table - all under one roof without intruding columns.

The space is filled with light and novel, humanizing touches, such as long copper panels behind the bar, where you'd expect a mirror to be. The metal is etched with fingerprints on edges and ends, inadvertent signatures of craftsmen who fitted the sheets into place. When the owners and Eck look at those dark whorls, they see a group portrait of the people involved in the project. Craftsmen such as Steve Barney, Yoshikuni Shomoi, Tom Eck, Earl Gray and Wally Mountain.

Past the bar, in the same wing of the house, a shower is made private by the thoughtful placement of a half-dozen 2,000-pound boulders from Whistler, B.C. They were single-handedly set on end by Eck, who first built makeshift rails outside, off-loaded the wrapped granite rocks, skidded them to their destination and levered them into place before windows and walls enclosed the room.

Oddly enough, given its magnitude, this was Eck's first house-building project for a client, though he was interested in structural design since his teens, when he built his own room out on his parents' patio. He earned a fine-arts degree from Cal State Long Beach, where he concentrated on figure drawing, and later studied furniture-making with John Nyquist, a highly regarded craftsman. In 1980, he helped his father plan and build a house near Bremerton.

Though the island house was his daily employment until recently, Eck, now 45, also found time to work on his own Asian-style house in North Bend (still unfinished), earn a master's degree in psychology and open a practice counseling couples.

It is Eck's genius to be able to make something functional and beautiful with traditional materials - wood, metal and stone - as well as write computer programs to manage a household's mechanical systems. He is sort of a philosophical engineer with sawdust on his sleeve. But above all, he knows how to listen.

"I learned a great deal by working on the bathroom design," Eck says. "It was difficult. As we went though the process, it came out very clearly that they didn't like closed or confining spaces, so I devised a plan to use large stones for privacy barriers or to suggest privacy.

"What evolved in the making of this space resulted in my making fewer assumptions now. I listen to what is not being said."

Before he arrived, the couple went through a bunch of architects who, quite naturally, had their ideas on paper, Eck says. This was not what the couple wanted. "They didn't like not working, not collaborating." The couple, like Eck, saw building as an evolutionary process in which problems and solutions fed a creative life. Plans locked on paper? Stifling.

Eck learned early on that the ever-present flux made formal plans useless. Best was a thumbnail sketch followed by cardboard or some other mock-up, often crude.

The couple bought the property around 1980. The core of their present house was built in the 1940s near the site of an older cabin. The rolling, 5-acre parcel has large trees and shrubs, extensive perennial gardens and many venerable apple trees from the original homestead.

They did not lust after a trophy home; the aim was a house that would be as well-made and well-thought-out as possible. They also pledged to honor the past, though the old rambler had to be peeled down to its studs for updating as new wings were built.

Thanks to clever landscaping and positioning of the new wings - for bedrooms, offices and recreation - the house looks of average size to a doorstep visitor, and as if it could have been built 60 years ago.

"The house design reflects our nature," the husband says. "Not showy; not wanting to draw attention. We have learned that anything that jumps out eventually becomes an annoyance."

Melding old and new for the exterior took some doing. For example, the original siding was cedar, hand-split by a fellow in the 1940s. The homeowners found the man - by this time in his 90s - and persuaded him to train a young person on the Olympic Peninsula how to split new siding from storm-dropped old-growth cedar so it could be incorporated with the original siding.

A core group of a half-dozen craftsmen were available for much of the project. Nearly everything was made right at the site, including the furniture.

Along the way, the husband says, they got better and better at choosing solutions. It was always interesting, he says, looking a bit wistful. Fortunately, budget was not a major issue for the retirement-age research biochemist.

If you became protective of your ideas, or saw yourself as the expert, Eck says, you'd risk losing the synergy that even now encourages their dining-table conversations to open with the question, "What if?"

At one point, when the husband lamented that he couldn't see an heirloom chestnut tree outside his refurbished bedroom, Eck suggested taking out the back wall and building a viewing loft.

That, in turn, led to Eck's hardwood spiral staircase. Eck had never built a staircase, but took stock of the surroundings and chose to rule out a city engineer's guidelines because "they were awful. Steel, bolts and brackets - not appropriate."

He and the engineer came to an agreement. Eck could build what he wanted and an inspector would come out and jump up and down on it. If the stairs were rock-solid, he'd sign off on them.

First, Eck built a mold that defined a curve by mounting boxes from wall studs in the bedroom to match the radius of the desired twist. He glued together strips of 1/8-inch mahogany that attached to the boxes. The strips were gradually formed into a curving support beam and the boxes then removed.

The banister was made by gluing together thin teak strips that attached to Eck's form. On the last day of this monthslong undertaking, his crew helped him drop his one-piece banister into position atop turned-wood spindles in one go. The staircase is without screws, nails or other metal parts. And it is wobble-free.

The epic remodel is finished - or perhaps "stopped" is a better word - mainly because Eck is ready for something different. He's printed cards for his next endeavor, an environmental consultation business. He writes in a handout sheet that he envisions himself as a guide who will help people create harmony between themselves and their home environment by "putting the ego in service of the eternal." He says he owes a debt to Christopher Alexander's influential book of home design, "The Timeless Way of Building," which tops his list of suggested reading materials for clients.

In the same sheet, he commends risk-taking and uncertainty when it comes to building a house. The adventure, he says, helps everyone grow.

Dean Stahl is a Seattle writer and editor. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.