The Lawless Retreat is almost, but not quite, the antithesis of the clients’ full-time residence, a modern loft tucked into the trusses of a former church in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Their vacation getaway, on a wooded hillside in Central Michigan, embraces the cottage ideal with a cozy, knotty cedar aesthetic. However, its bones are unmistakably modern. Led by principals Greg Howe, AIA, and Pam Lamaster-Millett, AIA, the design is organized as a series of solids and voids on a 3-foot module.
“It was a process to define the aesthetic character,” says Greg. “We started with a more classically contemporary approach, but then as we got further into materials, the rustic layer was added.”
During the owners’ search for a property, which involved camping out on three sites that made the short list, they had the good fortune to find this plot abutting a state park with walking trails and a Boy Scout camp. The 2.6 acres are on a narrow strip of land that runs from the crest of the hill to a valley containing a wetland, rising on the other side. “It feels like the middle of nowhere, in a good way,” says Pam.
The house may be in nowhereland, but its tenacity belies the laid-back setting. And it appears structurally simpler than it is. In plan, the main north-south axis is a rectangle containing the public zone and a guest bedroom, while a stairwell and screened porch form a shorter cross-axis that supports the owners’ suite upstairs. Its main axis starts at the front door, where visitors are treated to an uninterrupted view through the house. This spine, along the east side, steps down about 5 feet with the natural terrain, from the entry to the kitchen, dining room, and living room at the far end. Along the way, trees are visible through floor-to-ceiling windows, creating the feeling that you’re descending a hill.
Bisecting this corridor are telescoping doors that open to a screened porch on the east side of the kitchen. “That arrangement solved a problem we often face when dealing with a screened porch,” Greg says. “By setting it to the side of the house, you aren’t looking through it to the outside and staring at the back side of your patio furniture.”
Some of the building’s complexity came from the large overhangs that occur on both the north and south. A pair of glulam beams, appearing at the front porch and piercing the back wall of the house, rest on bearing points on the entry and the living room wall. However, in the kitchen they were hung from the upper floor. “There are limits on the length of glulam timber you can get, and we needed a seam,” says Greg. “We didn’t have bearing points in the kitchen. That argued for suspending a central section from above, versus supporting it from below.”
An equal part of this house’s appeal comes from the neutral, local material palette of cedar, steel, and slate. Solid yet spare, rustic yet sophisticated, they help the house disappear into the dense forest. Vertical cedar boards with a medium char define the front porch and fireplace volume and frame the windows and screened porch, while the rest of the house is clad in horizontal fiber-cement boards. Tongue-in-groove knotty cedar planking on the underside of the deep soffits, sealed to maintain its natural color, continues inside on the ceilings. The effect is warm and womb-like.
The design team considered charring the siding on site, but in the end opted for a factory finish. “The idea of a guy on a wooded site with a torch was a bit terrifying,” Pam says. “We wanted to take the guesswork out of it. Natural cedar has a lot of visual character, and we wanted to make sure the toasting was pretty consistent. It still has this handcrafted look but is more controlled.” Adds Greg, “The clients were interested in a stained finish, but experience told us that stain wouldn’t be the most resilient, and we thought the char added a nice layer of texture to complement the lap siding, which is pretty clean and pristine. We went through a lot of samples from the company. There’s a lot of precision and artistry to it.” Inside, charred cedar also defines the living room fireplace, in combination with blackened sheet metal.
The choice of flooring was guided by the architects’ eye for detail and ability to identify even the smallest discrepancies. Slate flooring, radiant heated with a geothermal system, was selected over porcelain tiles because the tiles didn’t follow a true 3-foot module: even though they’re sold as 18-inch squares, they’re made using machinery based on the metric system, Greg says. This kind of exactitude helps to set the house apart from a happenstance cottage. “A lot of existing cottages in Michigan had to be built as a small rectangle, and people added on over the years,” Pam says. “We wanted to preserve the idea that these cottages aren’t just a rectangle anymore. Having an implicit and sometimes explicit grid gives the house a rigor.”
Other interior finishes reinforce the woodsy vibe. Oak kitchen cabinets were dye-stained a deep greenish-black color to evoke wet tree bark, in contrast to white marble countertops sourced in Vermont. Upstairs in the owners’ bathroom shower, textured terra-cotta tiles absorb and reflect natural light from the skylight. “Water trickling down the tiles is like discovering an underground cave through a circuitous route,” Pam says. These kinds of effects can’t be computer rendered, Greg observes. “More and more these days, your sense of surprise when you go to a jobsite is less because you’ve seen it modeled so many times digitally. But you can’t model the materials we have in this house with a realistic sense. Each time we’d go, something new would be installed, and their richness was a surprise.”
Builder Jake Estkowski was hired when the house was well underway, after the initial general contractor was terminated because of his excruciatingly slow pace. Jake quickly got construction back on track, including taking on the metal base trim. “You’re mixing modern with wood products, trying to figure out how to put metal against a rough slate surface,” he says. “We had to put it on first and tile up to it, so you don’t see any fasteners.”
At the top of the client wish list, of course, was space for guests. The owners’ children are grown, but the extended family often spends time here, and the house can sleep 13, which is a lot for 2,425 square feet. With two bunk rooms, a bath, and a family room with a Murphy bed, not to mention a wine cellar, the basement accommodates extras quite comfortably. This level too is meticulously detailed with an airy, louvered stairwell that runs up to the top floor, and built-in bunk beds made of black-stained wood. Cozy and tight, they have the feel of an old train car.
In many ways, this project embodies the ideals of a second home, which an increasing number of people are seeking in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. “In the last three months, we’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from people interested in doing vacation homes,” Greg says. “This house suits the owners’ needs but is no bigger than it needs to be and is efficient in terms of performance. Those are goals we aim for in doing a retreat—something that’s not a source of maintenance and worry, more of an escape.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Principals-in-charge: Greg Howe, AIA, and Pam Lamaster-Millett, AIA; project architects: Laura Lee McAllister, AIA, and Lauren Dellinger, AIA, Searl Lamaster Howe Architects, Chicago
BUILDER: Jake Estkowski, Estkowski Construction, St. Joseph, Michigan
LANDSCAPE CONSULTANT: Jason Ballew, Chicago
PROJECT SIZE: 2,425 square feet
SITE SIZE: 2.6 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: $400 per square footPHOTOGRAPHY: Tony Soluri
CABINETRY: Ikea/Carson Custom Millwork
CLADDING: James Hardie
FAUCETS: Hansgrohe, Grohe, Schluter
HARDWARE: Häfele, Emtek
HOME CONTROL: Nest
HUMIDITY CONTROL: Honeywell
LIGHTING: Element, Edge
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
PAINT: Benjamin Moore
ROOF WINDOWS: Velux
SINKS: Elkay, Duravit
THERMAL & MOISTURE BARRIER: Tyvek
TILE: Cle, Royal Mosa
TUBS: Lacava, Grohe, Kohler
WINDOWS: Kolbe Windows & Doors
WINE REFRIGERATOR: Sub-Zero