The Accidental Architect

Casey Roloff ’95 imagined the town of his dreams on the Washington coast. He spent the next 17 years bringing it to life.

Casey Roloff ’95 had just started to gain recognition for building custom homes on the Oregon coast when he decided, in 2002, to build an entire town from scratch. He had recently become interested in the ideas of New Urbanism, which emphasizes pedestrian-scaled urban design as the antithesis to suburban sprawl. The basic concept is that design, density, and a nostalgic idea of small-town living can positively shape people’s private and social lives. The most famous town in the genre is Seaside, Fla., which operates as both a year-round community and a vacation destination. Casey felt there was demand for such a town in the Pacific Northwest, and despite not being an urban planner or architect, he knew he was the person to build it.

The quaint coastal town of Seabrook, Wash., started with 34 acres of virgin land—“a blank canvas,” Casey likes to say—to which he and his wife, Laura Roloff ’97, quickly added a dozen properties. The focal point is a gorgeous mile of wide, sandy beach reached by descending a long wooden staircase, framed by iconic lodgepole pines that look eternally windblown. In the past 17 years, the Roloffs have built and sold more than 400 houses of various architectural styles and sizes with picket fences, roomy front porches, and shared green spaces in between. The retail shops on Main Street and the final phase of houses will be complete within three to five years. As CEO of Seabrook Land Company, Casey calls himself a “true entrepreneur,” and he’s energized by the business side of the project, but building a whole town requires a dreamer at the helm. “It wasn’t about selling houses,” he says. “It was about building the kind of community where we wanted to live.” 

Casey was particularly attuned to the meaning of home. Before he met Laura, on a blind date in high school, he had moved about 20 times. At one point during his junior year, he and his parents and younger brother were living in an 18-foot travel trailer. The family owned a video store in Vancouver, Wash., and it was in trouble. Casey spent much of his free time at the store after school and soccer practice, helping his parents with ideas to keep the business afloat. “I just didn’t want the lights to get turned off again,” he says. It was a tough time, but Casey feels fortunate that his parents shared their challenges with him. That brought the family closer, and those early learning experiences honed his entrepreneurial instincts.

In his senior year, his family moved to Lincoln City, Ore., where his parents started renovating and flipping houses along the coast. Real estate became a family obsession, and some of Casey’s fondest memories involve sitting at the kitchen table sketching house plans with his parents.

Laura, two years younger, grew up in the affluent Sellwood neighborhood of Portland in a charming two-story house with her parents and five siblings. She was a bright student and a volleyball player, and when she met Casey during her sophomore year, in 1990, she liked him right away. He was a talker with a carefree, hippie-like persona— on that first date, he told her that he wanted to buy a Volkswagen van and drive across the country. Casey found Laura beautiful, authentic, and grounded. “I was in love instantly,” he says.

Laura (left) and Casey Roloff ’95
Laura (left) and Casey Roloff ’95

Casey had always struggled in school. He barely graduated from high school, and he went on to take classes part time at Portland Community College and Warner Pacific College, then Linfield College for a semester before taking time off to work for his dad. When Laura graduated in 1992 and was headed to the University of Puget Sound, it was a given that Casey would follow her. His friend Mike Shaver ’94, who’s known Casey since third grade and was best man at his wedding, says their relationship “was pretty serious from the beginning.” But Casey didn’t just want to live near Laura—he wanted to enroll at Puget Sound, too, and was determined to prove that he could do it.

In Tacoma, Laura lived on campus and studied studio art, while Casey moved into a house with Puget Sound students and enrolled at Tacoma Community College to get his grades up. The admission office told him that he’d need a 3.0 in order to be considered. “He took really challenging courses,” Laura says. Perhaps too challenging, because by the end of the academic year, he had a 2.9 and was denied admission. But once Casey gets something in his head, he won’t give up. He appealed the decision, and finally, he was admitted. He also made the basketball team.

The next two years at Puget Sound were pivotal. “Getting connected to goal-setters in college really turned it around for him,” Mike says. But Casey credits Ivey West, then director of Disability Services, which was part of the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching in the ’90s, for helping him unlock his potential. Ivey assessed that he had a learning disability, which came as a revelation in itself—but she also normalized it, and assured him it was something he could overcome. If there’s a name for Casey’s disability, he doesn’t know it. He says he hears only
two out of every three sentences. That made it hard for him to follow class discussions and lectures, and it also made understanding basketball plays exceptionally challenging. He eventually became so embarrassed that he quit the team, blaming it on a bad knee.

It wasn't about selling houses. It was about building the kind of community where we wanted to live."

– Casey Roloff ’95

Business, though, came easily to Casey. His entrepreneurial instinct was honed by real-life experience and motivated by real need. To pay his tuition, he started a house-painting business in Lincoln City with Laura in the summer of 1993. Their startup assets were a $1,000 Home Depot credit card and a book on house-painting basics. During their first summer, they netted $30,000. “It was hard work, but I took that basketball energy and redirected it,” Casey says.

He was also excelling as a business major. He remembers one class in which his favorite professor, Tom Schillar, asked the students how much they expected to be making in five years. “Some of the smartest kids were saying ‘50,000,’ ‘70,000,’ ‘90,000,’” Casey says. But he figured, if he had just made $30,000 in three months painting houses, he could easily make $100,000 if he did it year-round. In five years, he assumed, he’d be doing something much bigger. He told the class he expected to be making $500,000. He doesn’t remember whether anyone laughed or rolled their eyes. But Casey knew—in spite of, or maybe because of, all his learning challenges and knocks to his self-esteem—that being bold and original would pave his path in life. While the others counted on jobs with Microsoft or Boeing, he’d do things his own way.

In the spring of 1994, Casey proposed to Laura at Proposal Rock in Neskowin, Ore. They were married on Jan. 7, 1995, at a church in Sellwood, near the house where Laura had grown up. When Casey graduated that May, the couple headed straight for the coast. “We practically jumped in the car,” Casey says. “We couldn’t wait for it.” He planned to continue the painting business in Lincoln City and drive back and forth to Puget Sound while Laura finished college.

Real estate, meanwhile, remained his passion, and he decided to get his license and find a way into the business. On the Oregon coast, he recognized that there was a need for a higher architectural aesthetic. “The new houses were really just big boxes,” he says. “When you look at all the old neighborhoods in places like Tacoma and Portland, there was so much more thought and intention in the designs of the homes.”

Laura had briefly considered becoming an architect, and she shared Casey’s affinity for sketching house plans. The couple decided that their new business venture would be building new houses with modern amenities but with older architectural details. Casey sketched their first house on paper and gave it to an architect to feed into a computer-aided design program. They had their eye on a piece of land for sale, and they planned to subcontract every aspect of the building process. “But this was a whole new realm for us,” Casey says. “We went to all the banks, and they said, ‘You guys are nice kids, but you don’t have any credit or experience.’ We figured we knew enough about business that we could learn along the way, but the banks denied us.”

That’s when Casey met the doctors. While grocery shopping at Safeway in Lincoln City, he ran into a kid he played basketball with. “I’m trying to get a loan to build this house, and nobody will lend me the money,” he recalls saying. The kid said his dad was part of a group of six doctors who frequently loaned money from their pension plans for high-risk real estate investments. The next day, the doctors came out to see the land and the plans, and they agreed to loan Casey and Laura $150,000 at 14 percent interest.

Just as Casey had read about how to start a painting business, he was reading about real estate investing as he went. “He’s a sucker for all the how-to books,” Laura says. “And fad diets, the Ab Roller—it’s a good thing there wasn’t Amazon back then.”

“We weren’t developers. We weren’t even homebuilders,” Casey says. “After we built the first house, I said I’d never do that again. It was just super stressful.”

But they did do it again, many times. “The doctors and I would drive around on Friday afternoons to look at properties,” Casey says. “They were real estate junkies. It’s like a stock group or fantasy football.” When they found a property they wanted to invest in, they’d loan Casey the money, he’d subcontract the work and sell the house, and everyone would make a profit. Meanwhile, they grew to be friends. One of the doctors would even deliver the Roloffs’ first child, Lucy, in 2001.

Between 1995 and 2000, Casey and Laura built and sold more than 25 homes all along the Oregon coast, and real estate agents started paying attention. “Everything we touched turned to gold,” Casey says. “We would find properties that people were overlooking and turn them into more valuable real estate. We just saw something that others didn’t see.”

Casey and Laura made several million dollars while they were still in their 20s. And although the houses were fun, it was only a matter of time before Casey started dreaming of building something bigger. He and Laura bought a 10-acre property on the Oregon coast that he would call Bella Beach, and went looking for an architect to help him develop it.

Laurence Qamar looked up from his desk as a dark-eyed 26-year-old kid with a map walked in. It was 1998, and Laurence was a partner at an architectural firm in Portland. Although Laurence was only in his mid-30s, his new client’s youth made an impression; he was used to working with “deep-pocketed, older developers who were set in their ways.” As Casey rolled out the survey map of what would become Bella Beach and talked about his plans, Laurence found his passion and sincerity refreshing. “He wasn’t tainted by preconceptions or formulaic approaches,” Laurence says. “He was open and willing to consider new ways of designing. That was really compelling.”

Laurence had come to Casey’s attention for his role in planning the revitalization of older downtown areas around Oregon, inspired by New Urbanist principles. More than that, Laurence had studied with two of the founders of New Urbanism, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, as a graduate student at the University of Miami, and had briefly worked at their firm after earning his master’s degree. (He moved to Portland in 1994 when his wife got a teaching position at Reed College.) Throughout the Bella Beach project, which took about three years, Casey and Laurence talked a lot about New Urbanist design.

As their work together was winding down, around 2001, Laurence left his firm, and the first thing he did was call Casey. “I said, ‘What would you think of building a new town?’” Laurence recalls. Casey said he’d been thinking the same thing. He and Laura had made $2.5 million on Bella Beach, and creating a new town felt within reach.

The biggest obstacle was that nobody believed in the Washington coast. They didn't want to invest in it."

– Casey Roloff ’95

As they scouted a location for their new venture along the Oregon coast, they looked at towns like Cannon Beach and Astoria for inspiration. Those were established destinations within a two-hour drive of Portland. But they found that Seattle residents were also driving to Oregon, despite a five- or six-hour drive, and bypassing the Washington coast altogether. “It was forsaken and forgotten,” Laurence says.

This was puzzling to Casey. “We knew how spectacular the Olympic Peninsula was, and we couldn’t understand it—until we went to Ocean Shores and Westport and Long Beach,” he says. There weren’t many amenities in those Washington towns, and driving is allowed on the beaches, which can be a turnoff for families and nature lovers. But most of the state’s household wealth is concentrated in and around Seattle, and Casey saw opportunity in creating a closer getaway for that population. “We knew that if we could actually build a walkable town, the Washington coast needed this more than any other place. When you look at the demographics and at the supply and demand, it’s kind of a no-brainer that if we build it, people will respond positively to it.”

Casey and Laura soon found the perfect oceanfront property adjacent to Pacific Beach, and they started the design and planning process. The beach was cut off from the town site by the two-lane Highway 109, so the first question was how to bring the value of the ocean deeper into the community. Casey, Laura, and Laurence agreed that instead of building a wall of waterfront homes that blocked the view for others, as a conventional developer would do, they would leave the big vistas open and would design “view corridors” between the buildings downtown so that the ocean would remain a focal point. They would build some homes on the ocean side of Highway 109, but these would frame the view instead of obstructing it.

Laurence suggested that they do a design charrette as an intensive multiday collaboration process. They brought in additional designers, traffic engineers, an economist, a market analyst, and other advisors to set up on-site. “Casey’s really good at hiring people when he doesn’t know how to do something, and then he’ll learn from them,” Laura says. “He never claims, ‘I know everything.’ He will seek out the answers.”

Within the first week of the charrette, the consultants had helped to flesh out the basic concept of Seabrook. Laurence then worked on creating a master plan, what he calls “the entire language” of the town, which took about two years to complete. During this time, Casey and Laurence also flew out to visit Seaside, Fla., for more inspiration. They had arranged to meet the town architect, but he passed them off to his assistant, Stephen Poulakos, for a tour. The three of them got along so well that Casey later invited Stephen to come and work for Seabrook, and in 2004, he did. Stephen played an instrumental role in the town’s design, and continues to serve as director of town planning.

The Roloffs were ready to start building, but despite their success with Bella Beach, it was difficult to get banks to back the project. “The biggest obstacle was that nobody believed in the Washington coast,” Casey says. “They didn’t want to invest in it.”

He started reaching out to people who’d invested in Bella Beach, as well as other friends and connections. “Casey was great at bringing people in and getting them excited,” Laurence says. By 2004, they’d managed to raise about a million dollars on top of their own $2.5 million, and they finally found a bank that would loan them the rest.

“We were labeled the highest-risk loan in their portfolio,” Casey says of that bank. “And when the crash hit in 2008, we were the only one of their 17 development loans that paid back every penny and survived the economic downturn.” He credits their success in weathering the recession to the “pent-up demand” for a Washington coast destination, the appeal of the New Urbanist model, and their own fiscal responsibility. They didn’t have much debt. “Now, banks love us,” he says.

Construction started in 2005. Laurence would drive out every few weeks to work on-site, or he’d meet Casey in Portland or Olympia, where the Roloff family was living—and growing. Lucy was 4 years old, and Valerie was 2. Jane would be born in 2006, and the youngest, Megan, in 2010.

It was important to Laura that her children have stability. She wanted them to live in the same house and go to the same school from first through eighth grades, as she had. So for five years, from 2004 to 2009, Casey commuted an hour and a half from Olympia to Seabrook during the week, and the family joined him there on weekends.

The turning point came after the recession. “We wanted to show people we were 100 percent committed to living out here,” Casey says. Moving to Seabrook full time with four kids wasn’t an easy decision, though. Even now, the closest grocery store is 45 minutes away, and the public schools are struggling. For the first two years, the kids attended Pacific Beach Elementary, after which they were homeschooled by Laura in their garage for a year. “We’ve had to be pioneers,” Casey says. “It’s a very long-term commitment, and there have been a lot of compromises." 

People say this is their happy place. They'll walk around with a glass of wine and go from campfire to campfire, and the kids can run around with the dogs."

– Casey Roloff ’95

But when Casey and Laura talk about the kind of community where they want to live, they’re not only talking about Seabrook. Grays Harbor is one of the most economically depressed counties in the state, and they feel a responsibility to their neighbors. They established a 501(c)3 nonprofit that funnels 1 percent of revenue from house sales back to the community. The foundation has already donated $3 million to local schools, food banks, animal shelters, emergency services, and scholarships, and Seabrook is the No. 1 privately owned employer in the county.

After the homeschooling experiment, the Roloffs decided to establish a Montessori school at Seabrook. They brought in two certified Montessori teachers, and there are now about 23 kids enrolled. “It’s the kind of school I wish I had grown up in, because it’s independent learning and you go at your own pace,” Casey says. “The amount of respect the kids have for each other—it’s like a family.” The school provides scholarships for several kids from Pacific Beach, and Casey is talking with the superintendent of public schools about merging Pacific Beach Elementary, which has about 150 students, with a new Montessori program that would be accessible to everyone. 

Casey's original vision was to build a town from the ground up. He wanted to create a vibrant coastal community where an economically and socially diverse group of people could life full time. But Seabrook is primarily marketed as a vacation destination, and that has made it a great investment. The whole development is worth about $70 million now, and since 2011, Seabrook houses have appreciated 20 percent. If that isn’t enough to lure buyers, another big selling point is that they can put their house in a rental program managed by Seabrook staff. For visitors, it’s an experience similar to house-sharing platforms such as Airbnb or VRBO, elevated by the built-in community and consistent amenities.

Seabrook’s combination of “neo-traditional housing” and hospitality caught the attention of Peter Orser ’78, a veteran of the homebuilding industry who ran national operations for Weyerhaeuser Real Estate as president and CEO for many years. “What Casey had going on was really unique, and I was intrigued by his value proposition,” Peter says. Though decades apart, the two alumni bonded over their experiences at Puget Sound, and in 2016 Casey asked Peter to join his advisory board to help scale operations.

With Peter’s guidance, big things are on the horizon. Asked about Seabrook’s outlook, he says: “It’s fantastic, frankly. What he’s done so far is extraordinary. The next opportunity is to take the magic in a bottle and start to create a six-pack.” 

That could mean anything from Airstream glamping and treehouses at Seabrook to building new towns in Washington’s wine country or ski areas. “Seabrook has 400 houses, which is amazing in itself, but there are 100,000 people out there following Casey [on social media], and they’re future customers,” Peter says. “It’s not just a customer base—they’re fans.”

Among his fans are the 130 full-time Seabrook residents, who make up 20 percent of homeowners. Grant and Ellen Melocik, a retired couple who moved to Seabrook from Fresno, Calif., say they’re living the dream. They learned about the town from a 2013 Sunset magazine article, and Grant said to Ellen, “Isn’t this just the cutest place you’ve ever seen?” In California, they’d been conditioned to move on a good opportunity before it was gone, so Grant hopped on a plane the next day with three checkbooks in his pocket. He picked out the nicest oceanfront lot, and by June, their house was built. Ellen, a former teacher, retired on the last day of school, a Friday, and on Saturday the Melociks were driving up the coast in a moving van.

“It’s really fun to see a town grow up in front of your eyes,” Grant says. He and Ellen have been enjoying the company of other retirees and young families. They love seeing “free-range children” walking to the Montessori school each morning. There are book clubs, potlucks, farmers markets, live bands, footraces, and volunteer opportunities to keep people busy and engaged. “This is the perfect-size community to feel like you’re making an impact,” Ellen says. She teaches piano to some kids in town and volunteers at the Montessori school as well as the North Coast’s Green Lantern Lunch Program, which delivers meals to kids in need in the summer.

But the natural environment is why they’re here. Grant describes fishing at night under Orion’s Belt, standing in the ocean in waders, having to shuffle his feet because of all the Dungeness crab. “Once I caught [and released] 32 fish in a row,” he says. They get bald eagles nesting outside their balcony and double rainbows that stretch across the horizon. They also love to share the town and beach with visitors. “It’s delightful, because when they’re here, every- one’s happy,” Ellen says.

In a surprise twist, visitors and part-timers aren’t just Seattleites. “We have people from Portland, who have the Oregon coast in their backyard, and they drive an extra hour and a half to get to Seabrook,” Laura says. “We have a lot of people telling us they come here because their dog loves this beach.”

“People say this is their happy place,” Casey says. “They’ll walk around with a glass of wine and go from campfire to campfire, and the kids can run around with the dogs.”

Seabrook was deliberately designed for this kind of connectivity, and Casey loves to point out the details. Every Saturday at 11 a.m., he gives a walking tour of the town. (The tours have been so successful in building a Seabrook following that Peter has taken to calling Casey the Pied Piper.)

A few strides in on Main Street, he calls attention to the bell tower on the white town hall building. “When you look down this street to the east, you see that bell, and to the west, the ocean view. That’s called a deflected vista,” he says. “You can just imagine the sunsets in the town center. This little town bell didn’t land there by accident. It was very intentional. All around town, there are terminated and deflected vistas that make you want to explore, and draw you in. It’s very subtle, but all those design moves frame your experience.”

As the tour continues, Casey points out how the concrete sidewalks in the center of town “morph” into oyster-shell pathways, then into woodchips. That’s transect—the transition from an urban to natural environment. If you kept walking, you’d be in the woods, on Seabrook’s 30-acre preserve.

The group passes lovely shaded “mid-block crossings” that Casey says act like “secret pathways all through town.” Arriving at Crescent Park, which is in fact curved, he notes that “every outdoor space is like an outdoor room.” He then points out an example of a “green street,” a grass cause-way designed for pedestrians only. “These are great for stormwater retainment and also great for frogs,” he says. “The kids love this area in the springtime.”

At an intersection with a gazebo placed in the center, Casey explains that though it functions as a roundabout, it’s called a tabletop intersection and acts as a traffic calmer. “Look at this chaos right here. These trucks aren’t going to know what to do with themselves,” Casey says gleefully, watching two vehicles try to navigate the gazebo intersection. “Our job is to create as much chaos as possible for the drivers so they have to crawl through the neighborhood just like that.”

As the tour passes South Farm, where the last phase of houses is being framed, Casey starts describing what can’t yet be seen. “This is the farmhouse. It’s not built yet—that’s virtual reality. It will have a spa, a yoga studio, and a farm-to-table kitchen, and it will be open to the public.”

Back on Main Street, he points to where the grocery store will be. “It’ll have a 4,000-square-foot arcade down below, and an event hall up above. So we can have private retreats, reunions and weddings, and movie nights and live musicians. It just makes for a nice big living space.” 

We believe this is the highest form of art. There's nothing more important than the places and the communities that we live in."

– Casey Roloff ’95

For the past few years, there have been only pop-up retail shops, Saturday markets, and food trucks as incubators, but the brick-and-mortar spaces are finally being completed. “Restaurants and shops will be marching down this little street and that little street,” Casey says. “But that big view will never go away, so you always have that connection to the ocean. That’s one of the things that’s going to make our town center so iconic.”

Now that Seabrook is almost complete, Casey and Laura have been thinking about what’s next for them. They’re taking a trip to Europe for the first time ever, and they’re considering traveling more, seeing more of the world outside the Washington coast.

It’s not always easy being a pioneer. Grant and Ellen note that most people who live at Seabrook are self-reliant, hardy types who don’t mind driving two hours to Olympia for a doctor’s appointment or 45 minutes to Aberdeen for a major grocery store. To them, it’s worth the magic of watching dramatic Pacific storms roll in, or stumbling across a pack of mule deer grazing in the moonlight.

“There are tradeoffs,” Casey acknowledges. There’s also an ebb and flow to the seasons that takes getting used to. “We love it when everyone comes, and also when we have the place to ourselves,” he says.

Seabrook is, to be sure, a beautiful place. At first light, the beach is empty except for a few fishermen casting their lines at the shore, a distant runner, and a dog chasing seagulls with whole-body joy. There is only the sound of waves and wind. At night, the sky reminds visitors how far from light pollution they really are. “We love the stars,” Laura says.

It’s almost like camp, for adults. Adults plus kids and dogs, and wine. That’s in many ways a more appealing concept than a town, at least for visitors, because there’s a measure of escapism that’s built into the community. It allows one to suspend reality and live in a more perfect place.

“I think the reason Laura allowed me to do this is that we believe this is the highest form of art,” Casey says. “There’s nothing more important than the places and the communities that we live in.” More than anyone, Casey would know.

 

By Stacey Cook
Photos by Sy Bean
Published April 30, 2019