All houses strike up a conversation with their setting, and few have a livelier dialogue than the X House and the cliff on which it sits on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Resting lightly on a rocky promontory above Lake Superior, the house is a platform for viewing both the tranquil sunsets and the mercurial, sometimes threatening weather that comes off the water.
The clients live in Miami, but this half-mile of coastline has been in the wife’s family for years and includes a 1940s log-cabin compound shared among her siblings. The most recent land purchase encompassed this more-remote spot with two coves and a boathouse. “To get to this rock outcrop you had to cross a stream and build a road to the place, but there was no question that it was the dominant opportunity for views,” says Julie Snow, FAIA. “The couple has three grown daughters—one of them got married here last summer—and the idea was to create a legacy house, to achieve a sense of permanence.”
It’s isolated, but not too far from civilization. Five miles away is Marquette, a beautiful little town with a thriving Main Street and home to Northern Michigan University. An old mining area, it was settled by Finnish immigrants who valued and respected the land. “It was always interesting to me that the people who immigrated to the U.S. found landscapes like the ones they lived in before,” Julie says. “Marquette is a special place. The people are very pragmatic and connected to the land. The craftspeople who built this house were extraordinary. It had its challenges for them, but their commitment to the project made it work.”
Angle of Repose
Snow Kreilich Architects is made of the same DNA. The firm’s spare buildings, whether houses, workplaces, or transit spaces, are rooted as much in pragmatism as any aesthetic construct. This design represents an ideal intersection of occupying a site and keeping a respectful distance, since neither the firm nor their clients wanted to get in the way of this spectacular land that held almost a magnetic force on the family. As a result, “the architecture has a great deal of restraint, allowing this intensive occupation and the site’s presence in their daily lives,” Julie says.
Topography and views determined the footprint, if you can call it that. Facing north on the cliff above the two coves, the house is planted on the ground at the intersection of the X, and its wings are not truly cantilevered but hover on piers above the uneven grade. The X’s converge at the entry foyer, which contains a powder room, mudroom, laundry, mechanical room, and pantry across from the kitchen. The X’s are formed by the living wing, stretching from the garage to the living room, and the longer bedroom wing with a media room at one end and the owners’ suite at the other.
To determine the angle of the two bars, Julie and her team set the floor elevation just high enough to clear the rocky terrain, sliding the bars back and forth to find a position that would not require blasting the rock, and keeping them as close to ground level as possible. “If we had pulled the bedroom wing to 90 degrees it would have been embedded in rock, and we didn’t want to do that,” Julie says. Canting it slightly also created an extraordinary view from the bedroom wing down to the east cove. The living wing has a panoramic view of the west cove, and outdoor stairs lead down to the beach where the owners launch their kayaks.
The house plays out the contradiction between a robust structure and a delicate appearance. Its thin, flat roof and 12-foot-high, 4-foot-wide sliding windows convey the feeling of standing on a platform with a cover. It is “stealthy,” as Julie says—practically invisible among the trees. But its steel framing handles heavy snow and resists uplift in high winds. It seems counterintuitive, but if ever there was a good reason to do a flat roof, it is here. Snow is a good insulator, but it also blows off a flat roof relatively cleanly, compared to a pitched roof, where snow accumulates on one side of the roof and blows off in deep piles on the other, she says.
At the entry, a garden planted in the sculpted rock outcrop welcomes visitors. Vertically installed cut Baltic bluestone covers the garage walls, piercing into the foyer and media wing and reappearing on the living room and owners’ bedroom fireplaces. The entryway’s bluestone “is like an X marking a place on the land,” Julie says. “It has weight and balance because we used it in a vertical fashion. We had a robust discussion and testing of whether we should run it vertically or horizontally, and we thought vertically was the most powerful way of connecting it to the earth.” Vertical window mullions were designed for the same effect. The windows disappear above the ceiling and run down to the sill line, contributing to the sense that the building is barely there. The remaining outside walls are clad horizontally in dark-stained cedar that recedes into the vegetation.
Transparency is perfect for this idyllic spot, but it also poses an indoor-comfort challenge in the winter, especially for clients who live most of the year in the tropics. “It’s hard to build a house for a couple from Miami in Northern Michigan,” Julie says. “They wanted to feel cozy and enclosed at the same time they’re enjoying the magnificent view they have.” Radiant heat, along with a wash of warm air along the glazing, keeps the interior toasty on cold days.
On the other hand, the air-conditioning is rarely used, because large sliders open up fully to catch cross breezes from the lake—at 300 to 400 feet deep, the water temperature rarely rises above 60 degrees. Glass rails were installed for fall protection outside the sliders on the east and west sides of the living wing and on the north face of the bedroom wings. In the owners’ bath, a big tub sits directly in front of a slider, allowing them to bathe at an open window, concealed from the rest of the world.
“When you have a site like this, you want to have a sense that you’re really in this place, winter and summer,” Julie says. That indoor-outdoor relationship is reinforced in various ways. Valders gray limestone floors, laid in a tight plank, run right out onto the terraces, and the white underside of the roof plane continues inside on the ceiling. The media room, also the husband’s office, has a slider opening to the long living wing terrace, allowing him to watch sports while keeping an eye on the grill.
A pared-down interior material palette minimizes the “noise,” Julie says. The cabinetry is dark-stained oak, and marble countertops were chosen to roughly match the color and grain of the limestone floor. “The idea was to create a family relationship of the two stones that touch each other,” Julie says, referring to the kitchen countertops that waterfall the cabinets to the floor.
One challenge of building in a rural part of the Upper Peninsula is that there are few other houses of this caliber, so the local construction crew was learning new processes from the moment it broke ground. Julie describes the structure as a concrete base with a steel croquet hoop. Multiple piers support each wing, and lateral forces are absorbed in walls and beams running in the other direction. “The concrete guy created a form that fit perfectly on the rocks,” she says. “He did an amazing job of creating a support for the house without getting concrete all over the rocks.”
“The construction was tricky all the way to the finish,” agrees general contractor Gregg Seiple, who has since retired. In fact, this ambitious project was his swan song. He had worked on previous projects for the family and knew it would be his last. “If I hadn’t known them as well as I did, it would have been more daunting,” he says. “Many of the subs I had used for years. I told everyone who came to bid on it that in 30 years, when you’re taking your grandkids around to show work you did as a young man, you’re not going to take them to a tract house. This is a legacy project. I got them motivated that way.”
One learning curve was installing the LED lighting system with Cat5 wiring. Another challenge was setting the media room’s gigantic pocket door, which weighed about 500 pounds, Gregg says—“getting all the hangers on and getting it to roll properly.” Working collaboratively, one concession to the comfort level of the third-generation stone masons was to use metal mesh and thinset mortar to install the vertical bluestone cladding, rather than the mechanical clip system the architects had speced. And the high skill level of the drywall finishers is evident on the expansive ceiling in the living wing, where glancing light shows up any imperfection.
Good architecture has so many layers, and what is almost as tangible as the house itself is the sense of serenity and security the couple feels here, far from their home in a Covid-19 hotspot. “They’re feeling very grateful and happy to have this place to be right now,” Julie says. “They never planned to live there full-time, but with the pandemic they are rethinking that. They have been there since March. It’s an opportunity to escape something scarier than what we normally retreat from. The vacation house has turned around how we think about escape.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Principal-in-charge: Julie V. Snow, FAIA; principal: Matt Kreilich, FAIA; project architect: Tyson McElvain, AIA; project designer and architect: Carl Gauley, RA; Mary Springer, AIA; project manager: Pauv Thouk, AIA, Snow Kreilich Architects, Minneapolis; consulting architect: James Larson, RA, Building Solutions, Minneapolis
BUILDER: Gregg H. Seiple Construction, with Hall Contracting, Marquette, Michigan
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Meyer | Borgman | Johnson, Minneapolis
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Flourishes, Marquette
PROJECT SIZE: 3,955 square feet
SITE SIZE: 19 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Corey Gaffer Photography
ARCHITECTURAL PANELS: Powder-coated aluminum panels
BATHROOM FIXTURES: Duravit, Geberit
COOKING APPLIANCES: Wolf
COUNTERTOPS: Madreperola (Stone Source)
FLOORING: Valders gray limestone
INSULATION: Dow Building Solutions
LIGHTING: Element, Luminii
LIGHTING CONTROLS: Lutron
PLUMBING FITTING: Dornbracht, Waterworks, Artos, Nikles
PLUMBING FIXTURES: Julien, Toto, Duravit, Geberit
SIDING: Western red cedar with solid black Rubio Monocoat finish
SINKS: Julien (kitchen)