Pg123 Highwater Snow
Image: Jon Jensen

Paul McKean designed the residence for the woodsy 1.8-acre property.

When McKean and Donohue discovered the vacant, 1.8-acre property in 2005, it had been wallowing on the market for over two years, largely because the creek’s proximity made about 1.7 acres of it unfit for building. (Hood River County codes require structures to be set back 100 feet from the water’s edge.) But McKean, who runs a private architecture practice, saw fresh possibilities, especially after having spent a yearlong fellowship studying prefab design in Austria, Denmark, Sweden, England, Iceland, Australia and New Zealand. In Sweden, he was particularly taken with a housing development created by Ikea and the builder Skanska; the developers of the project, called Boklok, streamlined the construction process to save money and built smaller, smarter spaces to take advantage of every square foot of land.

Borrowing some of the principles he’d gleaned overseas, McKean sketched out a design for a two-bedroom family cabin to present to the local banks. By cantilevering the living space atop a 10-foot-high concrete base and two concrete pillars, he discovered, the dwelling would not only maximize the envelope of its small footprint, it also would rise well above the property’s flood line and provide an excellent vantage point from which to enjoy the surrounding views. To reach the main entrance, his family and guests would simply climb a utilitarian, exterior steel and cedar stairway. Design problem solved. Or so he thought.

‘We told (the banks) the style was non-negotiable.’

Unfortunately, despite the physical accessibility of McKean’s cedar-and-glass-clad box, loan officers considered the plan conceptually out of reach: Because so few modern houses had been built in the Gorge, they had no way to judge the home’s potential resale value. “One of the first things they told us was, ‘We’re probably going to ask you to do a different style,’” McKean says. They wanted a Tudor, specifically, adds Donohue. “Our mouths were hanging open. We told them the style was non-negotiable,” McKean says.

Bravely persevering, in 2006 they finally succeeded in getting a loan to purchase the property and build the $215,000 house. But locals remained a bit confounded as Hood River contractor Jeremy Muenzer started erecting the boxy, modern structure. Neighbors told McKean and Donohue that once the exterior was done, curious onlookers began to arrive. Every night, for months, at least half a dozen vehicles would slowly loop the dead-end street to gawk. “I took that as a compliment,” McKean says.