For a 19-year-old college sophomore, exploring Florence, Italy, alone while your father attends a medical conference is a thrilling prospect. But for Eric Cobb, AIA, the trip would turn out to be more than just an adventure. With a genetic predisposition split between his sculptor mother and his physician father, Cobb had been leaning toward a career in the sciences until he set foot inside the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. As he navigated the looping stair inside the massive octagonal dome, the experience “blew my mind,” as he describes it. He was climbing inside the space between the inner and outer masonry shells, which work together structurally to create the span. “This wasn't art layered on columns, carvings on doors, or gratuitous ornament,” he says. “This was real; this was it. Not to equate ourselves with Brunelleschi, but I like to think it's a value that is core to our work.”

How the art of building is expressed in its structure is more or less what Cobb has been interested in ever since. So it's fortuitous that, after graduate school at Columbia University, he ended up back in Seattle—where he grew up, and where he is often asked to design for rugged sites that force powerful structural solutions. His houses respond to the topology of the land while engaging it lightly. They're often thrust over a steep slope or wetland and rotated toward a chosen view—and not always the predictable one. Materials are abstract, durable, readily available, and exposed for what they are. Cobb routinely urges clients to invest more in the bones of the structure and less on extravagant finishes.

A recent example of this approach is Milepost 9, perched above a busy freight train route and the panoramic Puget Sound. The house rests on the foundation of an old beach house, but Cobb positioned its multitiered volumes over the swooping hillside with a series of shifting, hard-edged overhangs. The house is clad in low-maintenance galvanized metal and colorful cementitious board, which align aesthetically with the boxcars passing below. An aluminum-and-fiberglass entry bridge spans the natural gap between the house and the street. “That site is just loaded with these contrasts of softness and hardness,” Cobb explains. “Twenty trains a day plow by the house. There's a directness and brutality that the site could hold, and we wanted the house to reflect that.”