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The Nesting Instinct: A Cabin Retreat in Washington Inspired by a Bird

In a large-scale study released last week, scientists confirmed a 29 percent decline in the North American bird population—to the tune of 2.9 billion fewer birds—since 1970. I read the alarming news with great sadness and fear. But then I stumbled upon this project by Wittman Estes Architecture + Landscape that was inspired by a small bird—the nesting killdeer—and I felt a tinge of hope.
Their clients, Pat and John Troth, are environmentalists and nature-lovers. John is a wildlife photographer, and whenever he found himself at their cabin overlooking Washington’s Hood Canal, he would seize the opportunity to take pictures of the nesting killdeer. The 1960s one-room cabin, though, was dark and felt closed-off from the outdoors, so they hired the firm to transform it into a restorative retreat where they could watch birds and commune with nature, even when they were indoors.
As architect Matt Wittman learned more about the killdeer, he realized that its nesting habits could and should inform the redesign. “Unlike most birds, the killdeer doesn’t bring outside vegetation to build its nest; it pulls away the existing brush, burrowing into the existing forest, and nesting on the ground,” he says.
Indeed, the resulting compound of three structures (a main cabin, an addition, plus a new guest bunkhouse)—both low-impact in design and low in height—has the look of nests scattered across the 1.13-acre property and feels of a piece with the environment. Furthermore, the buildings now feature large floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors—perfect for indoor-outdoor living and, of course, bird-watching.
Let’s take a tour of the Troths’ new perch, shall we?
Photography by Andrew Pogue, courtesy of Wittman Estes Architecture + Landscape.
Above: The main cabin is in the forefront, the bunkhouse in the back. The most dramatic feature of the buildings may be the large eaves of engineered wood. “The homeowners weren’t sure about the flat roof, but we agreed that with the proper maintenance, it would work well in this climate,” says Wittman.
Above: The entry into the main cabin. Just beyond is a Hans Wegner rocking chair and a hidden Murphy bed on the right wall of the living room. The flooring is fir hardwood, and the ceiling and walls are clad in pine plywood.
Above: Mid-century furniture throughout reinforces simple, clean lines. The wood-burning stove is from Danish company Morsø; model 3440 is designed to be environmentally friendly. Ten-foot-high glass doors by Lindal ensure unimpeded views of the canal.
Above: Wittman Estes integrated the Murphy bed into a cabinet with side tables, linen storage, and reading lights.
Above: The custom kitchen cabinets are made from birch plywood.
Above: The concrete kitchen counter extends into an outdoor kitchen on the deck.
Above: Cedar planks make up the modern deck. The vintage mid-century steel tube and rope lounge chairs are by Van Keppel Greene. (See Design Trend: 15 Wooden Decks That Disappear Into the Landscape.)
Above: A glass vestibule connects the original main cabin to the new addition, which now houses a bedroom and bathroom. The rough-sawn cedar siding is unpainted to encourage natural aging.
Above: The bedroom in the addition. Across the hall is the bathroom.
Above: Wittman Estes reused and repurposed where they could: Here in the bathroom, the countertops are fabricated from reclaimed wood from the original structure.
Above: A reclaimed cast iron tub.
Above: A gravel path leads from the main building to the bunkhouse.
For more nature retreats, see:

Unplugged: A Young Couple’ DIY, Totally Off-the-Grid Cabin in the New Hampshire Woods
Antsy Plum: An Architect Revives a Forgotten 1960s Hillside Beauty
In Scotland, A Luxe Nature Retreat from a Danish Billionaire


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