Vital Signs Case Study: The Watzek House

Building Performance Evaluation of a Northwest Regional Style House

Building Description


The Aubrey Watzek House, designed by John Yeon, was completed in 1937. The Watzek House quickly became widely published, and known as one of the earliest examples of Northwest Regional Style of architecture. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the Watzek House was described in the nomination form as “the most pivotal and famous example of modern domestic architecture in the Pacific Northwest.” The Northwest Regional Style of architecture was a partly a reaction against the ubiquitousness of the International Style of architecture, and partly an embodiment of the new ideas about buildings and construction, which converted the character of the International Style into regional expressions by using local materials and forms.

View of courtyard pool and the entrance, looking west to the entry drive.

House, a wood structure on a concrete foundation, which has only its construction type to link it to the typical residential construction of the time. The details of construction for the house are unique and expressive of John Yeon’s vision of what a house should be. The exterior walls of the living part of the house are fir siding on a balloon frame stud wall. The garage is made of 4x6 nominal T&G lumber, stacked horizontally and held in place with steel pins. The exterior finish is translucent, and enhances the silver-gray color of the naturally aged wood. The interior finishes vary by room, but are different species of wood and plaster. The composition of the house is a series of rooms, arranged by function and degree of privacy, around a garden courtyard which is full of native plants.

View of living room projecting out into the landscape of native vegetation which was designed by John Yeon.


It was this experimental attitude, and the use of Oregon vernacular forms and materials, which John Yeon used to design his architectural “Manifesto”. The Watzek


It is in the composition of the plans and sections of the house where John Yeon showed an early awareness of the spatial ordering concepts of the International Style of architecture. The idea of interrelated spaces, with a sequence of changing views and vistas, flowing together in a series of unique spatial experiences and rich materials. These spatial experiences are highlighted by a combination of long views - from the living room to Mt Hood in the east, and near views - with the dining room reaching into the native landscape to the north

Walking through the house, it is clear that John Yeon was concerned with designing the whole project. Even at the age of 26, with no formal architectural education, his vision of how a building should reside in its site, and how all its elements from inside to out should be composed, was clear. In the Watzek House, he designed the landscape of native plants and the fabric for the curtains, and nearly everything in between. The details of the house are an early expression of the new regional architecture which John Yeon helped to bring into existence.

First Floor Plan. East is up, with the primary rooms overlooking downtown Portland. The living room is on axis with Mt. Hood. From Architectural Record, Dec. 1940.


Some of those unique details include vertical grain noble fir paneling, along with an early example of unsealed double glazing in the living room. This double glazing system is used to battle the harsh eastern winds which come along the Columbia Gorge during the winter months. Other details include the internalization of the gutters and downspouts, in order to prevent their appearance from interrupting the carefully composed elevations. A similar degree of control over the external appearance of the building systems happens at the roof line. Here John Yeon carefully planned the location of the ventilation pipes for the plumbing and heating systems and placed all of them into the chimney. In most rooms there are also a variety of switchable systems which allow the occupant to control the level of sunlight and air which enter the room. This control is managed through the operation of louvred screens and vents, roll down screens, and cleverly disguised operable windows.

Above Left: View of the living room, looking towards the fireplace, showing noble fir panels.
Above Right: Unsealed double glazing system for east facing living room windows
Below Right: Louvered pocket shading system in the guest bedroom, allows occupants to control amount of sunlight and privacy
Below Left: Pull down screens in dining room, allows fresh air to be brought into room during warm summer months.