May 4th, 2010

deannArticle by Alison Pride. Photography by Steve Meltzer

While she was growing up next door to Kopachuck State Park in Gig Harbor, Deann Nordi [Saasen] spent countless hours exploring the woods and beaches near her home. She collected shells to make into wind chimes and decorate keepsake boxes. She rode her pony along the wooded trails. She even had a favorite granite rock to sunbathe on.

The open-concept house she grew up in, designed by her mother and built by her father, was “very Frank Lloyd Wright,” she says, with floor to ceiling windows showcasing the surrounding woods, a flat roof, cedar siding and an unusually large, 12-by-8-foot skylight she used to lie underneath, looking up at the trees. One of the results of this idyllic sounding childhood was that Deann grew up wanting her houses to be open on the inside. Another was that it instilled in her a lifelong love of the natural world. “It made me really appreciate the textures in nature,” she says.

Fast forward a few years and Deann is an accomplished interior designer and general contractor with some major projects to her credit, including multifamily dwellings in Eastern Washington and Seattle, as well as numerous home remodels in Tacoma and Gig Harbor. By her own estimate, she’s bought, renovated and sold close to 70 houses (her first when she was only 20 years old) in the Puget Sound area, some of them practically falling down.

In one house, she even convinced her brother to dive down and fix a sump pump that had been plugged with children’s toys, flooding the basement with five feet of water in which floated multiple dead rats and three old mattresses — a project not for the faint of heart. But Deann, whose interests are far ranging and varied, is used to plunging in and defying expectations. In fact, she seems to enjoy it. She once counseled MENSA students at the University of Washington that they could do anything if they followed their hearts, regardless of whether or not they had the “right” degree. “The most important thing is to ask questions along the way,” she told them. It’s a strategy that’s worked well for her. Following her childhood, she embarked upon a formal education that included two years at Washington State University, time spent living in Southern California to attend Long Beach State and then, after returning to the Pacific Northwest, studying at both Bellevue Community College, where she was one of the editors for the campus newspaper, and the University of Washington.

Following her diverse interests, she took classes in several disciplines including women’s studies, marketing, Eastern Asian culture and public relations. Her first love remained interior design, though, and when she was at the UW she began coaching, in her words, “young trust-fund guys rehabbing houses in Madison Valley.” Following that, she talked her way into a $10-an-hour job at a large commercial design firm, where she eventually became a junior designer. When she realized that she wasn’t going any further in the company without a formal degree, she quit and returned to the South Sound, where she opened her own business with five employees and did $1.2 million in volume the first year, mostly through networking. Six months later, she became a general contractor.
Along the way, she kept asking questions of the male contractors she ran into, many of whom were happy to share information with her. “As a female contractor, that’s probably been my saving grace,” Deann says with a laugh. “I’ve just soaked it up like a sponge.” The variety of her experiences have served her well, she believes, for a couple of reasons. “I’m glad I’ve tried everything so I have some idea how things work,” she says. They’ve also spurred her to think creatively about design. In one instance, she installed Pergo flooring on a ceiling. “I was told by every contractor and designer I couldn’t do it,” she says. The result? “It’s just spectacular,” for both aesthetic reasons (the high gloss) and practical ones (cobwebs don’t stick to it), she says. “So sometimes it’s nice to bend the rules,” she says. With her wide-ranging interests, Deann is always on the lookout for new trends and innovative materials.

Her lifelong love of nature inspires both the materials she incorporates, including lots of wood, stone and granite, as well as how she utilizes design elements. She is a big believer in the importance of indoor/outdoor spaces and in one of her houses on Fox Island, she designed a Zen garden and outdoor shower off the master bath. In the same house, she sunk the master bathtub so anyone taking a soak was at eye level with the garden. “You can take any space and really create a view from it,” she says. She’d like to see more people create what she calls “a quiet room” in their homes, somewhere to get away from modern distractions like televisions and computers. “All you really need is an 8- by-10 room with a view out toward the garden,” she says. “Nature is something that is constantly giving back and replenishing your soul. It’s so important to cultivate that. It’s about creating an environment where you can find your peace.”

Deann’s current home, which looks across the water to Fox Island, is a showcase of her eclectic style and the respect she holds for what she deems the “soul” of a house. Built in 1902, the original house once served as a YWCA girls’ camp. When Deann designed the remodel, she maintained what she could from the old house, including the stair banister and the original fir floors and ceilings upstairs. In the rest of the house, she carefully chose materials, like millwork and window casings, to blend seamlessly with the older home. The result is a thoroughly updated and modern home that retains much of the character and atmosphere of the original. “Every house I’ve renovated — and I’ve renovated a lot of houses — you can kind of feel the energy of the people who’ve lived there. And this is a happy house,” Deann says.deck_0

Not surprisingly, Deann is already looking forward to her next project, always in search of fresh ideas and new, Earth-friendly technologies. “I think geothermal heat and solar panels are the wave of the future,” she says. “There’s no reason not to do it.” She also sees a move away from “McMansions” toward downsizing. She is excited by the prospect of turning her design talents toward the creation of smaller, smarter homes.  “With the demographic in Gig Harbor, there are so many people in their 60s and 70s and up that don’t want to maintain a large home,” she says.

Whatever other design elements her smaller homes include, they will boast plenty of natural light. “I want to do a little house with a sun-room in it and dozens of skylights,” she says, smiling. “There’s no reason here to have a dark house.” Or, in her world, a house without soul. Deann Deann’s company, Broadway Interior Design & Renovation LLC, is located in the Finholm district of Gig Harbor. Recently, she teamed up with Judy Lynott, owner of New Trends Renovation & Design, and Charles Bucher, owner of Harbor Home Design Inc., to form Latitude 123, a full-service design group that can handle, in her words, everything from “permits to pillows.”

WSH&G | Summer 2010 | Copyright © WestSound Home & Garden Magazine/Wet Apple Media, Inc.