Tuned To The Dunes: A beach house honors the magic of surprise, the gift of time

They knew what to do the minute they plopped the baby on the beach: Buy this place!

"There was something magic about seeing him so at home there," his mom says now. "It just seemed incredibly safe — assuming, of course, he has the sense to stay out of the ocean."

It shouldn't be too difficult for Gabe Newell and his wife, Lisa, to keep their two boys, now 5 and 2, out of the breakers. They built plenty of playful attention-grabbers into the beach house they raised on three acres of rolling dunes on the Long Beach Peninsula. The Newell children aren't the only ones to find magic in the seascape of their front yard.

"We just fell in love with the juxtaposition of the dune grass with the ocean," says Gabe. "What sealed it for us was the lyricism of the environment, the texture of the place and the stunning beauty."

The couple interviewed three architects before finding a Seattle firm — Replinger-Hossner Architects — they thought could translate their need for a vacation home that would grow up with their young family. The house had to have space to share with friends and relatives; privacy for at least two couples, and a reading nook or two. It had to be resistant to weather, mildew, sand and children. And it had to have "surprises" built in for children and adults.

"I really wanted to re-create some of what I remember growing up," says Lisa. "My grandmother had a beach house in Grayland. It was a tiny cabin that family and friends crammed into every chance we got. I remember people sleeping everywhere."

"One of the things that's important about family is the narrative history they create for themselves," says Gabe. "We thought a lot about how we as a family over time would be in the space. If you look at the house, you can see an overlay of an adult's sense of place with a teenager's sense of place with a child's sense of place." Local codes required the house to be 200 feet back from the high-tide line — a setback that was fine with the owners, who wanted the house to be an extension of the seascape.

"Most of the neighbors' houses are three stories so they can look out on the ocean," says Tim Hossner, one of three architects who worked on the project. "This one has a much stronger relationship with the beach itself. It has sort of a liquid reaction with the sand itself."

Every aspect of the exterior of the house is geared to withstand storms that occasionally blow off the Pacific at 100 miles an hour. Walls are concrete block, colored with implanted aggregate pebbles in warm, sandy tones and accented by uncoated Western red cedar that will weather to silver. The roof is zinc-coated stainless steel. Sliding barn-door shutters can be rolled into place over windows and glass doors.

The house, which was finished in the fall of 2001, is wired for as much technology as the family could bring in. Which isn't much, so far.

"Bringing in a TV was a stretch for us," says Lisa. "If we had a computer in the house, we would use it. But we don't take work to the beach. That's not to say in 10 years we won't. But so far we have things that are special to Seattle and things that are special to the beach."

The interior of the house features a large, open living space book-ended by private bedrooms and a kids' bunk room. Upstairs, overlooking the open space, are lofts, connected by a catwalk, that can be playrooms or sleeping areas as needed. That's where most of the magic is found.

"We spent a lot of time brainstorming about little touches kids would enjoy on those rainy, rainy days," Lisa says. "Things that would be special to this house. You can always bring in a Nintendo, but we wanted fun things that are unique to this house, that are part of it."

So there in the floor of the catwalk are clear-glass tiles positioned like the major stars in the constellation Orion. The tiles, which extend through the floor, become beams of light in the kitchen ceiling. The children might use the arrangement to study the stars some day, Lisa says, or "to make up some game of their own." The boys should also have fun with a hand-crank pulley-and-cable system designed to transport toys or notes high across the living area from one loft room to the other. One of those rooms features a bed that slides out from the wall, like a drawer. The other has a low door that enters into a tiny "secret room" — a hiding place Gabe and Lisa plan to let the boys discover in time.

There are fun touches downstairs, too. Near the entry is a library-card catalogue, a secondhand piece with dozens of tiny drawers for kids to fill with beach treasures. And off the living room, beneath the stair landing, is a cove with a daybed, a place for a child to cuddle up and read, watch TV or gaze out over the dunes to the breakers.

Some of the magic is built into the very bones of the house. Outside, at the entry, a concrete-block wall is etched with the names of 68 craftsmen who worked on it — a tribute to the art and craft that went into the place, says Gabe.

The house has already begun to take on the family mystique the Newells hoped it would. Once, after a Chinese friend left, they found a poem written in Chinese calligraphy on the chalkboard.

"We knew we couldn't keep it," Gabe says. "It's a chalkboard, and there's no way we could keep kids from covering it up. But when it was erased, it seemed like it sort of disappeared into the texture of the house.

"Like the beach, the house changes all the time. But it never forgets."

Sally Macdonald is a retired Seattle Times staff reporter.