Hip to Be Square: A vacation home that’s sleek, spare and unabashedly modern

Text by Megan Fulweiler Photography by Jim Westphalen

No one questioned why a busy professional couple would seek rejuvenation by the side of a lake, particularly this one in western Vermont. The pretty, tranquil spot exudes calm and relaxation. The husband and wife had good friends close by, too, which only made the location more desirable.

What did pique some interest, however, was the owners’ decision to rebuild on the site when the existing house proved to be beyond repair. The couple sought a minimalist approach for their new retreat. In an area long filled with traditional summer houses and rustic camps, a modern abode, it was worried, could seem totally unlike its neighbors.

Lo and behold, the completed house put to rest any concerns the neighbors might have had. The building’s simple, unassuming demeanor turned out to be a perfect fit, so well suited to its environment that no one will be surprised if it sparks more contemporary architecture in the area.

The challenges—what the architect, Brian J. Mac of Richmond, Vermont’s Birdseye Design, calls “a narrow, spaghetti-like lot,” a steep grade change from the top of the property to the shore, and the usual heap of tricky restrictions that come with waterside construction—today seem as remote as the moon. Given the way Mac, project manager Joe Fisher, and landscape architect H. Keith Wagner, principal of Burlington, Vermont–based Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture, have so skillfully married house and setting, why dwell on the past?

Whether one views the place from a canoe out on the lake or from the graveled driveway that leads visitors in at the site’s crest, it’s a stellar design. (The Vermont chapter of the American Institute of Architects agrees, having bestowed on the house a recent Merit Award.)

A detached, 400-square-foot garage, which also houses the husband’s studio, perches at the top of the hill. Concrete slab steps float downward to the 2,000-square-foot main house, which is beautifully cantilevered over a concrete terrace. The front entry, master suite, guest bedroom, and a screened porch sit on the top level; the open-plan kitchen, dining, and living area is situated below. The black metal and concrete used for both buildings enhances their connection to each other and their interaction with the woodsy setting.

Rather than stack the volumes, Mac ingeniously extended the top floor of each structure to one side, enhancing visual interest. Large windows—in some cases whole walls of glass—allow for spectacular lake views from both house and studio. Wagner and his crew limbed up the existing trees running along the water’s edge—a skillful maneuver that makes for better vistas and creates a naturally dramatic frame for the home.

The project’s phenomenal outcome, explains the architect, is really a tribute to the owners’ determination to build something they would love. “They stayed motivated and didn’t allow anything to sidetrack their original intentions,” Mac says with admiration. No excess, no superfluous details of any kind anywhere. Each space is pure and functional, as if to underscore the belief that living well really does—we hear Thoreau applauding—translate into getting back to the basics.

The interior glows. White walls shoot light in all directions, including into the kitchen where a stainless-steel counter big enough to seat a slew of hungry guests resides. The kitchen cabinets are made of durable Parapan, a solid, high-gloss acyclic material meant to stand the test of time. A handcrafted wood table and benches nearby provide a welcoming island as well. Their curvaceous forms offset the straightforwardness of the architecture, while their dark color—a noteworthy contrast to the pale palette of the rest of the kitchen—interjects fireside-like warmth. Mac and the owners collaborated on the well-edited furnishings. Eames chairs and a linear steel coffee table keep the comfortable but tailored sofa company.

This same sparseness pervades the Zen-like master bath and bedroom. In the latter, a Parapan wall serves as a backdrop for the couple’s very cool bed, with its sculptural steel headboard. “The owners and I designed this bed together,” Mac says. “Since Birdseye is a design/build company, we’re easily able to bounce ideas around and share drawings with clients.” Bocci pendants cast a halo of light for reading. And large windows—in the airy bath and bedroom—yield still more views of the glorious New England surroundings. •

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