A nature-loving couple gets intentional with a steep property on the Willamette River.
Landscape Design: LandCurrent and Pistils Design + Build
Photography: Jason E. Kaplan and Jesse Waldman
Most of the home Jason Weber began renovating in 2011 on an inclined riverbank of the Willamette near Milwaukie was already completed when he met and fell in love with Isabel Sweitzer. That left Weber, a sales professional for the IT industry, and Sweitzer, a naturopath, with the landscape around the home to shape as a couple. In the end, the bigger, more important project lay ahead of them.
“We are focused on the outdoors first,” Weber says. “There is no reason for us to be inside.”
The couple spent two years working with LandCurrent and Pistils Design + Build to reshape their backyard into a natural wonderland — honing its access to the river, building spaces for young family life, and rediscovering a connection to the seasons as they looked for ever more opportunities to find that sweet spot between wild and intentional. The result is a backyard that is part earth art, part kayaker’s dream, with a playful spirit extending in every direction.
“We wanted a landscape, not a yard,” Weber says.
Every decision on the project was made in concert with what the land had given them. From the front, the home resembles a deceptively small cabin set amid a classic Pacific Northwest forest. A series of monolithic concrete slabs leads to a wooden footbridge just before the entry, lending the home a distinct, modern Japanese vibe. The couple decided against a garage, opting for a carport and a cedar shed where their gear is packed for spur-of-the-moment camping. Around the yard, wet-loving foliage like sedges, rushes and camas irises stand at the ready to absorb rainwater flowing from the hillside above.
The home’s rear, which faces the Willamette River as it moves past Mary S. Young Park, is another world entirely. The graded incline behind the home, the greatest challenge to landscaping, drops 50 feet to the river in a striking path of dry-stacked native basalt steps built by master masons Darren Craig and Shane Myers. The process of installing the path required months of chiseling, cutting and traditional technical expertise made even more complicated because the rail was also curved.
The stone path, made of crushed basalt, is flanked by ornamental grasses, anemone, native western sword fern and salal to give the walk to the river a meadow-like feel with loads of texture.
“The path kind of hugs you as you walk down,” Sweitzer says.
“It’s like an open tunnel,” Weber adds. “You’re immersed in the plants.”
Though the S-curve is no longer as markedly visible from the river as it was before it started blending into the landscape, it has become a prominent landmark for boaters and kayakers on this section of the river. The couple, avid kayakers both, left the riverfront more wild and unadorned to make entering and leaving the river feel more natural.
“We really wanted a lot of movement and texture, more what you’d find in nature,” Sweitzer says.
The gathering spaces tucked in closer to the home make living outside a way of life. Forested privacy was of utmost concern to the couple, and in most of the gathering spaces, the homeowners can turn 360 degrees without seeing anyone else. A large back patio of blue-gray stone leads to a poured-concrete landing with hardwood benches creating a hangout space near the family’s stainless-steel hot tub. A giant row of sustainable bamboo creates a privacy fence between their patio and a neighbor’s yard.
The big vision, now executed, has given way to small moments they share with their daughter, Iman, 2, who has grown up traversing the steps while exploring the walls and angles and learning to love nature as her parents do. Weber and Sweitzer had their share of nervous moments as they learned to trust their daughter to clamber over rocks and traverse the backyard. The family does Iman’s bath time in the hot tub most nights — so they can be out on the water and look up at the moon.
“Our daughter is pretty wild and pretty fearless,” Sweitzer says.