Case Study: Ishawooa Mesa Ranch by Lake | Flato Architects

San Antonio, Texas-based Lake|Flato was founded on its appreciation for ranch building vernacular. Purveyors of local traditions, from their trademark Porch Houses to their poetic farm compounds, the firm has perfected its approach to designing for Texas’ wild, wide-open landscapes. The strength of that brand has, of course, attracted a following, including a Wyoming couple who run a working ranch about 40 miles south of Cody. It is hard to imagine a more evocative place than here, hard by Ishawooa Mesa near the banks of the Shoshone River. With close views of the mighty Carter Mountain range, the 250-acre property is an enviable place to live, and an unforgettable spot on which to design a house. Like Texas Hill Country, though, this remote setting can be as harsh as it is magnificent. Ishawooa Mesa Ranch, created for the couple and their three children, responds impeccably to both the design brief and the natural environment.

As always, the design team studied the land and climate conditions before deciding where to build. The clients will eventually live here full-time. For now, though, they use the property to raise livestock and crops that supply food to their second ranch, near Jackson, which caters to seasonal tourists. And there were several old buildings on this property, including a ranch manager’s home, that influenced their decisions. The owners also wanted to be close to a pond fed by the river, which is about 100 yards away. “In the spring, with snowpack the river can get vigorous and dangerous at times, and the course of it often will change based on turbulence associated with snowmelt,” says architect Steve Raike, AIA. “A levee protects the home if the snowpack is deep. But the substrate we were building on is relatively porous; even the banks of the pond change.” 

Another consideration, of course, was climate. At an elevation of about 6,200 feet, the house needed to perform well in punishing conditions, whether it is wind and sun on a summer day or protracted periods of below-zero temperatures. For Lake|Flato, whose buildings respond elegantly to intense conditions, these were opportunities rather than constraints. “It was an exercise in providing shelter in the most honest sense of the word, in a beautiful way that’s also durable and low-maintenance,” Steve says. “We wanted to use the architecture as a means to enhance the experience of being on the land.”

A modern interpretation of a homestead, the new three-part scheme imparts a camp-like atmosphere. Initially, the team studied several different versions of a footprint. One early iteration was a bar-shaped structure; however, the final design inverts the Texas tradition of stretching the program between multiple buildings to harness the cooling breezes. Here, the same strategy was used to block prevailing winds while opening the opposite sides of the buildings to the outdoors. The U-shaped plan evolved as a two-story stone house facing the pond on the south. The house shields a courtyard to the north from the summer’s strong southerly winds. Across the courtyard, a multipurpose barn acts as a gateway to the compound, sheltering the courtyard from winter’s northern winds, while a screened porch on the east links the barn and house. “The screened porch opens up to get a filtered view through the courtyard toward Ishawooa Mesa,” Steve says. “Looking east, you see how the pond connects back to the river.” 

Triple Parti

Dividing the program into smaller buildings with a central gathering spot allowed for living spaces that effortlessly expand for large gatherings, and for both the festive and industrious aspects of ranch life. For example, the barn, beautifully framed with Douglas fir and custom-designed trusses, is used for both vehicles and events. In the shade and out of the elements, it’s the preferred spot for canning vegetables and other food-production activities. 

Measuring about 25 by 50 feet, the barn has three bays that can open two at a time—slatted doors on both sides stack in front of each other, opening two-thirds of the wall area. Given the site’s stringent seismic requirements, “one of the things we wrestled with was how to make it strong and durable enough to stand up to all the forces that will act on it, but still have it feel beautiful and handsome,” Steve says. “The barn, reinforced with steel, is an honest structural expression of how it stands up to the seismic and snow loads. They can get 4 feet of snow at times.” Its wall assemblies are robust, with 2×6 inland red cedar siding installed over a draining matrix. The exterior’s black stain recalls what is likely creosote covering some of the ranch’s old log buildings. The corrugated Cor-Ten roof, whose top layer oxidizes to protect the metal beneath, reappears on the house’s roof and dormers. 

Pulling apart the buildings also set up the anticipation of arrival. Visitors enter at the barn’s mudroom; to the left are two guest rooms and an upstairs loft. The mudroom hall transitions to a covered walkway that runs alongside the screened porch before delivering visitors to the house’s front door. Positioned out of the wind, the parallel porch has screens that retract into the walls—bugs are gone by midsummer—offering sheltered space between the pond and courtyard. Aptly named “the soddy,” its roof has an insulating layer of sod, like some of the older buildings; this roofline continues over a single-story bedroom suite appended to the two-level house.

In the main entry is a vestibule with cubbies for stashing waders and fishing gear. On the left is the single-story bedroom and bath, and to the right is the main house. “This notion of aging in place was something we talked about,” Steve says. “Right now they sleep on the second floor, but in the future they can inhabit that first-floor space. In making this building resilient and durable, we were also providing a way for them to stay there if mobility becomes an issue.”

Viewed from the south, the pitched-roof main house presents the compound’s most iconic side—a classic house shape and a meandering pond in the foreground. This taut volume is clad in Iron Mountain slate sourced in Montana. “When we’re working outside our home region, we try to understand how specific materials will perform long-term,” Steve says. “Slate is better in cold weather because it’s less porous and doesn’t absorb water like limestone does. We worked with them to develop this dry-stack appearance using the cleft face of the stone.” This structure features an open kitchen, living, and dining room plus an office on the main level, and a den, mezzanine, and second primary suite above. 

Spatial Effects

Within the outdoor-conscious floor plan, the interior volumes create apertures through which to appreciate pieces of the landscape. “If you want to immerse yourself, you go outside,” Steve says. The couple requested high points in the house from which to view a second layer of mountains. “The husband of the couple pilots a small plane and has an airfield on the ranch for deliveries between ranches,” Steve says. “He enjoys being up high and wanted some aspect of that in the home. The higher you get on the site, the more of these distant mountains you can see.” 

Tucked up under the roof gable, the husband’s office has a dormer looking east toward Carter Mountain and the range behind it. On the west side of the house, a window seat off the stair landing frames a view of evergreen trees a few hundred yards away, which look like miniatures against the hulking mesa just a half mile from the house. “This image sums it up as good as any we have,” Steve says. “In the midst of this rugged and vast landscape, here you are in this wonderful space, protected and cozy.”

Other nooks and crannies encircle the central gathering room. In addition to the office and the bedroom suite on the first floor, a bridge across the double-height great room connects the couple’s sleeping quarters to the TV room—all providing adjacent escapes for entertainment, work, and rest.

Natural Materials

If the firm’s work is a study in craft and assembly, it also reflects the unique strengths of local tradespeople. “We always ask, who are the local craftspeople and what do they do?” Steve says. “Early on in Texas, cattle barns were built from leftover oil field pipe. You never want to ask someone to do something they’re not particularly well suited to do.” Most of the subcontractors came from Cody, including the cement masons who built the board-formed concrete fireplaces and poured the concrete floors, which have radiant geothermal heating and cooling. One fireplace anchors the great room, the other contains an Argentinian wood-fired grill in the kitchen. Douglas fir ceiling framing is exposed, and black structural steel lifts the mezzanine walkway while lending seismic stability. 

Those interior materials support and refine the property’s aesthetic. To maintain indoor environmental quality, the clients wanted to avoid sheetrock. Guest bedroom walls are clear cedar siding, ceiling boards are Douglas fir, and white surfaces are a three-part stucco made in the U.S. “The learning curve for us was the lack of fussy details,” recalls builder Tim Blazina, a partner and project manager at Yellowstone Traditions. “In the bedrooms that are wood, wall boards run up the walls vertically, racetrack across the ceiling, and go down the opposite wall, with light switches centered on the boards. It meant knowing where the boards were going to lay out when we roughed in the outlets and lights.” The kitchen’s ebonized oak cabinets are topped with soapstone counters, a surface repeated on the bathroom vanities. “It’s a warm material that develops a nice patina with age,” Steve says. “You can see where you’re spending time in the kitchen.” 

Restraint and precision permeate the home’s operational aspects, too. Given the extreme climate, the goal was to circle the wagons, limiting the amount of exterior wall surface. As such, it was an exercise in sizing spaces for efficient heating and building rigorous wall assemblies to use energy sparingly. At about 14 by 18 feet, for example, the guest bedrooms are just large enough to be comfortable. The envelope is a thermally efficient assembly that includes insulated slab-on-grade floors, thermally broken windows, foam and mineral wool rigid insulation, and a roof system of structural insulated panels (SIPs) and Douglas fir. Roof overhangs were eliminated to prevent ice damming and icicles and to allow snow to slide off, while deep recesses at entrances and vestibules offer protection from the sun, rain, and wind.

All these moves produced not just a stunning house, but one that embraces the landscape without the attendant energy consequences. “It was very much a team effort of everyone bringing wonderful ideas and following the themes we used to weigh every decision against, and testing against massing, craft, and ideas of prospect, aperture, and shelter,” Steve says. “I think they feel like it has captured all of those goals.” 

Image Gallery

Plans and Drawings

Ishawooa Mesa Ranch

Cody, Wyoming

Architect: David Lake, AIA, principal in charge; Steve Raike, AIA, project manager; David Ericsson, project assistant, Lake|Flato Architects, San Antonio, Texas

Builder: Yellowstone Traditions, Bozeman, Montana

Interior designer: Marnie Wright Design, San Francisco

Structural engineering: SSG Structural Engineers, San Luis Obispo, California

Project size: 5,920 square feet (3,860 conditioned)

Site size: 250 acres

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Joe Fletcher Photography

Key Products

Cooktop: Wolf

Cooking ventilation: Vent-A-Hood

Dishwasher: Miele

Entry doors/hardware: Rocky Mountain Hardware, Hafele, Rejuvenation, Dynamic Fenestration

Faucets: Chicago Faucets

HVAC: Tekmar ground source heat pump, Warmboard

Insulation: ROXUL, Tyvek

Outdoor grill: Grillworks Argentinian Grill

Rainscreen ventilation system: Benjamin Obdyke Home Slicker

Refrigerator/Freezer: Sub-Zero

Roof and truss systems: Cor-Ten, SIPs, Douglas fir

Toilets: TOTO

Tubs: Blu Bathworks

Underlayment, sheathing: Owens Corning Titanium PSU30

Washer/dryer: Whirlpool

Windows, skylights, and window systems: Dynamic Fenestration

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