There’s a sense of calm that washes over you when you perceive that your immediate environment is completely under control—no important consideration is left unaddressed and all details, large and small, are resolved with great care and precision. The St. Joseph Beach House by Wheeler Kearns Architects is just such an environment. Although a full-time residence, it wields the ineffable magic of a vacation home. The lives contained inside can spin with exhilarating activity or settle into Zen-like repose, pacing the desires and moods of its inhabitants.
Wheeler Kearns traces its roots as a firm to an early commission on Lake Michigan—a reinvention of a former Boy Scouts camp into a community of second homes. The firm designed the prototype houses for the Camp Madron community using simple Shaker forms as inspiration. The project won multiple awards in the late 1980s and launched the firm on its path as a dominant design force in Chicago, where its office is based, and in the city’s favorite getaway areas, among them the shores of Lake Michigan.
Architect Mark Weber, AIA, joined Wheeler Kearns hard on the heels of its founding and developed a special affinity for its custom residential projects. His other passion is designing custom furniture, and it is that exacting nature and appreciation of craft that he brought to the St. Joseph project. His keen eye and emphasis on the orchestration of details aligned perfectly with his clients, who are originally from Germany—a heritage Mark shares.
In addition to their creative chops, the best architects also have a talent for mediation, for balancing seemingly competing interests. The husband client here wanted a house that connected to precedent and tradition, and the wife wished for clean, contemporary space. Again, Weber found a solution in the Shaker approach to design—eliminate all inessential ornament and derive beauty from the precise execution of critical elements.
Other contradictions also required resolution. The lakeside of the property is abustle with noise and activity, further animated by wild dune grasses that move like waves in the strong winds off the water. And the front approach to the house is “manicured lawns,” says Mark, infused with a serene placidity. Applying his deep understanding of the many moods of Lake Michigan, Mark grasped that these were opportunities to harness in his design. “The key was to differentiate between the lakeside and the entry court at the kinetic level,” he says. “There’s a refined focus to the courtside. The apertures are more punched and smaller in general. On the lakeside, everything goes panoramic. We take the corners away, extract them, and make very large apertures. It’s a discussion of the different energy levels from road to lake.”
These yin-yang forces and the size of the clients’ program drove Mark to split the plan into separate components and reconnect them with glass links. The central volume contains the entry and kitchen on the first level and the master suite on the second. Behind it, as you get closer to the lake, is the volume that holds the dining room and great room. On the second floor above are two children’s rooms with a study area between. A third volume, arranged perpendicular to the main house structures, provides an ample garage on the ground level and an office and guest suite on the second level. Access to the upper level is through a stair from the garage or across an open-air deck off the master suite. A second, smaller garage is placed parallel to the main garage building.
Filling in Pieces
On the interiors, the tightly controlled composition allowed Mark to secure multiple exposures of natural light and views for key rooms. On the exterior, the buildings—or “bars,” as Mark calls them—create protected outdoor areas for a variety of activities. A courtyard adjacent to the front entry is shielded from the lake’s strong west winds by the volume behind it. The courtyard is sunken to avoid equally chilly winds to the north, and a long garden wall supplies privacy from neighbors. At the rear, an outdoor lounge is nestled between the two main buildings, segueing into an outdoor kitchen and dining area behind the garage volume. A pergola stretches over all three areas—a physical melding of the spaces that also tempers the strong western sun.
“Our clients do quite a bit of entertaining, so the exteriors were about placemaking,” Mark explains. “What we have on the lakeside of the house is essentially one huge exterior room, with the trellis serving as a bridge between the outdoor dining and lounging areas and the pool deck. The trellis helps soften the light through the windows, in addition to protecting the outdoor areas.”
The outdoor rooms fill in the extracted pieces of the pulled-apart house, a move that’s echoed in the conversion of solid building corners into glazed apertures. Where you would expect closed elements, there are openings. So, too, the main house volumes are connected to each other with a two-story glass link, spanning the distance between the rear outdoor areas and the side courtyard. And a one-story glass link connects the lakeside area to the motor court at the front of the house. The organization is at once poetic and practical—a service core between the garage and rear outdoor areas can serve both zones with a shared mudroom, laundry, and bathroom.
Pulling the building apart and reconnecting its pieces enabled Mark to carefully pace the drama of the house as it unfolds its many layers. The procession is from formality to conviviality, from framed slices of views to panoramas, from the weight of quotidian life to the buoyancy of lake life. “There’s a refined framed view, an axial view as you enter the court. The front door is recessed and framed in plate steel. As you walk through, you start to see there’s the lake beyond, and another volume, and something linking them,” says Mark. “It’s almost like a shish kebob.
“Then you move into the stair hall and see the big aperture to the right, and the courtyard beyond it. Straight ahead, you start to perceive the other building that you had a glimpse of before, but now you see it more prominently,” he continues. “You see the lake and windows expand around you. You see the window passing by the buffet volume, and you start to read there is more space and volume to the right. And the opaque walls to the kitchen become open to the pool and outdoor areas. Call it shish kaview.”
Weathered and Warm
Although the house is large—about 8,700 square feet, plus another 1,400 of garage space—Mark was careful to keep rooms to a human scale. Ceilings are not excessively high, on either the main or second level. Generous amounts of white oak on floors, ceilings, built-ins, and the main stair soften the interiors and balance the coolness of steel windows, door systems, and hardware. Wood on the floor is a larger format than on the ceiling. “It’s the same rift-sawn material,” Mark says, “but the ceiling is more delicate. We wanted bigger pieces of material to give walking presence to the floors. We wanted the scale to shift tighter above and to have a difference in texture relative to each other.”
The play of material and texture continues in the fireplace wall. “They are clay tiles set with tight joints. The natural difference in the tile creates that mottled look,” Mark explains. “The tiles aren’t flat, they’re hand-formed and each reflects light a little differently.” The wall of kitchen cabinets and paneled appliances shares this mottled quality, here achieved with graphite paint.
In juxtaposition to the variegation of natural materials stand the steel elements, executed so evenly and precisely they almost recede from view. All windows and doors are thermally broken, structural steel. They are further bolstered by steel columns that reach through the levels and terminate in bands of steel plate. “We pulled the columns inboard, so the fenestration could stay light,” says the architect. The columns themselves are thin enough to masquerade as mullions, blending into the overall rhythms of the fenestration. Other careful slices in the ceilings hold motorized window shades and curtains for sun control.
Building exteriors are equally exacting, albeit with a touch of gentle rusticity. Acetylated wood siding stands up to the harsh climate, while silvering over time. Cedar shingles add just a hint of roughness and texture without the chunky dimensionality of shakes. Roof terminations are sharp-edged, another example of necessary details made beautiful in their precision. “We wanted to bring a sensibility to the eaves—they are meant to be both taut and durable. Fascia copper wraps into the eaves and becomes this piece that has some profile for a drip edge. At the vulnerable point of the mitered corner, we took a piece of copper and put it in first; the wood is abutted to that and imbedded into a waterproof sealant and backer—so the corners always stay crisp,” he says. “All the materials are meant to weather and patina. They will become beautiful with age like a broken-in saddle.”
The gutters are copper, too—their utilitarian beauty underlined with a special flourish: They are recessed within the building plane. Notched into the façade itself, they become part of the refrain of steel elements in the meticulous design. “We take those elements that are typically applied and make them integral,” Mark observes. “They’re pushed halfway into the façade, and there’s a receiver to accept them. You can still see the gutters but it’s more subtle—they’re more thoughtfully placed and executed.”
Lesser architects might never have considered these and other functional elements capable of elevation through design. Of course, this does not describe Mark. He leaves no architectural opportunity unexamined. He also understands an important pitfall of houses designed to capture light and views: So much glass optimized for the daytime can turn cold and dark at night. He tackles the problem with strategic exterior lighting. “If we light features in the courtyard and outdoor areas, it takes away from the black hole feeling,” he points out. Meanwhile, what makes all that glazing—and, indeed, the entire house—worth the effort is the sun setting directly over the lake. “The sunsets are incredible—just fantastic. Looking toward the lake, every evening the sun is visible. The vibrant colors bounce off the water. We designed the house to take part in that procession and that experience.”
Plans and Drawings
St. Joseph Beach House
St. Joseph, Michigan
ARCHITECT: Mark Weber, AIA, principal; Thomas Boyster, AIA, project architect, Wheeler Kearns Architects
BUILDER: Norman Zielke Residential Builders, Stevensville, Michigan
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Stephanie Thatenhorst, Stephanie Thatenhorst Interior Design, Munich, Germany
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Mimi McKay, McKay Landscape Architecture, Chicago
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Enspect Engineering, Merrillville, Indiana
PROJECT SIZE: 8,700 square feet (house); 1,400 square feet (garage)
SITE SIZE: 1.65 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Steve Hall, Hall + Merrick Photographers
CABINETRY: Boffi, custom
CLADDING: Accoya Radiata shiplap natural weathered
FAUCETS, KITCHEN: Boffi
FAUCETS, SECONDARY: Aboutwater, Fantini Rubinetti, Franz Viegener,
HARDWARE: Classic Brass
LIGHTING: Lucifer Lighting, BEGA, Louis Poulsen, Serge Mouille, Apparatus, Roll & Hill, DIMOREGALLERY
ROOFING: Western Red Cedar Red Label Shingles
SINKS, MASTER: Geberit
SPECIALTY APPLIANCES: Whirlpool
TOWEL HEATERS: Whirlpool
WALL OVENS: Whirlpool
WATER FILTRATION/CONDITIONING: Whirlpool
WINDOWS: Hope’s Windows
WINE REFRIGERATION: Whirlpool