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Couple hope to inspire others to consider alternative houses

Casting a film can seem straightforward.

Say you need a handsome, Hispanic private eye. How about Antonio Banderas?

A wily, wind-etched billionaire? Get Sam Elliott.

But what if you want to bring these actors together in a sleek, modern house perched on a remote hillside … in Spokane County?

In that case, call special effects.

Or, try the county building department, which is what film location scout Marc Dahlstrom did after fruitlessly wandering the area’s backroads in search of exotic abodes.

“The next day, my phone rang,” Dahlstrom said. “ ‘The house you’re looking for is just up from Rockford,’ someone said. When I drove out there, I knew right away I had it.”

With that, Samuel and Kathryn Jones’ house went from obscurity to center stage in “The Big Bang,” a Spokane-filmed mystery thriller which saw limited theatrical release last month and now is available on DVD.

The Joneses weren’t seeking notoriety. But they did want something out of the ordinary.

“One of our goals was to inspire people to think differently about houses,” Kathryn explained.

A competitive cyclist, she grew up in an Issaquah, Wash., farmhouse her parents remodeled. Samuel, a banking consultant, was raised in Connecticut in a 1920s home.

So how did they get from traditional to cutting edge?

Samuel’s mother liked modern architecture. When he was little, she’d drive him to a site outside New Canaan, Conn., where they’d peek over a stone wall at a 20th century icon: Philip Johnson’s Glass House.

Fast forward to early 2008. Samuel and Kathryn had settled in Spokane and acquired 20 acres overlooking the Palouse. Eager to spend as much time as possible with their young children, the couple aspired to the minimalism advocated by magazines such as Dwell: clean lines, small footprint, low maintenance.

“We didn’t want to spend time dusting everything,” said Samuel.

Not your typical Eastern Washington home. But because they’d be building at the end of a mile-long driveway, they didn’t have to worry about what neighbors might think.

Seeking guidance, the Joneses remembered a modern house they’d admired in Alaska and decided to hire its designer, Anchorage architect Bruce Williams.

Kathryn described the 18-month project as a collaboration with Williams and the couple’s builder, R.J. McKenzie.

The design process began with Williams asking questions about how the Joneses live and what’s important to them in a home.

“I told him we didn’t need a dining room and we didn’t need a big bathroom,” Samuel said. “The most important thing for us was a community space where the family could hang out.”

Kathryn’s primary responsibility was getting the site’s infrastructure – water, septic, power – ready for construction.

Then heavy snowfall intervened.

“We were motivated to get this done quickly,” Kathryn recalled, “because we had lots of friends who bought property and just let it sit there. I wanted to rip this off like a Band-Aid and get it over with.”

Williams had spent three days studying the site, “walking every inch to see where the house should be,” he said.

He concluded that the landscape deserved a more dominant voice than the structure itself, so he chose to lift the house above the ground and make the exterior a neutral gray.

He’d originally envisioned corrugated metal siding as a nod to the home’s agricultural setting, but budget constraints required a switch to less-expensive cement panels.

Also, the house initially was designed to “float” above the hillside on metal posts. But builder McKenzie pointed out the technical challenges of sinking pilings deep in the earth, as well as the opportunity to add square footage with a partial basement.

“Bruce was the artist,” Kathryn said, “and R.J.’s role was to be the realist’’ – to anticipate what the family would want when they moved in, as well as what they might need years down the road.

The house is divided into three spaces: the kitchen/living area, where family members spend most of their time; the sleeping quarters; and a separate office.

The biggest expanse of glass is on the east façade, allowing sunrises to bathe the great room with wake-up light. Deer, elk, coyote and hawks populate the ridge outside. Visible in the distance are mountains along the Idaho-Montana border.

Equally dramatic is the southern view toward Steptoe Butte, 30 miles away. The roof extends over the south deck, providing midday shade in summer while allowing sunlight to penetrate the home during cooler months.

Heating and air-conditioning costs are modest, thanks to a ground-source heat pump that draws warmth from the earth in winter and dumps it back into the soil in summer.

The home’s most distinctive feature is its flat roof, a typical characteristic of Williams’ designs as well as a trademark of one of his favorite architects, Frank Lloyd Wright.

“People keep asking us, ‘When are you going to put the roof on?’ ” Kathryn commented good-naturedly.

Besides giving the Joneses’ home its crisp profile, the flattop allows for future expansion, Williams said, should his clients decide to add another story or build a rooftop deck.

Despite a few cost-cutting compromises – the cement siding, vinyl windows and postponement of a pedestrian bridge connecting the driveway and front entry – Williams is pleased with the end result.

So is McKenzie. “It’s a very simple-looking house,” he said, “but a very complex one to build. Our goal was to cut costs while still keeping the home’s integrity. I think we succeeded.”

And what about the home’s movie debut?

Film critics haven’t been kind to “The Big Bang,” but location scout Dahlstrom gives the Joneses’ residence rave reviews.

Of its eight-minute cameo he says simply: “Phenomenal.”

Spokane freelance writer and editor Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at