We spoke with architect Julie Snow of Minneapolis-based firm Snow Kreilich to learn more about her site-specific retreat on the North Shore of Lake Superior and how embracing the North informs her design.
What drew you to this location for the home?
The site was really the discovery of Peggy Lucas, one of our clients of several years ago, and now my neighbor. She and I were looking at some brick samples on a cold January day and she showed me images of the site she and her husband Dave had just bought. Fortunately, there were other sites available. My husband and I went up the next weekend. We arrived, put on snowshoes, and made our way toward the water with our dog, who was loving the deep snow. It was an amazing experience to look out over the rocks toward the lake. The sun was shining, the water was sparkling a brilliant blue and the temperature was brutal. We loved it.
How did the landscape of the North Shore inspire or inform the home's design?
When we arrived at the water’s edge, the combination of trees and rock outcroppings sheltered us as we were lost in the view toward the lake’s horizon. In a sense the house does the same thing. The walls are solid toward the north and open toward the south for the views toward the rocky shoreline and the expansive horizon of the lake. The purity of the horizontal line of the lake is reiterated in the black volumes of the house. The two parts of the house—the main house, and the studio frame a view of the lake as you arrive at the house. The deck between the house and studio is our outdoor living space and, for those staying in the studio in the winter, our outdoor “shiver walk,” often done in wooly socks in the morning and evening.
The terrain is rough; large boulders, rocky clay soils. It is a boreal forest, spruce, birch, aspen and an occasional pine, although few remain after logging operations. The shoreline is a filter for snow melt off the Sawtooth Mountains, very rocky wetlands that should not be disturbed. We intentionally avoided changing the geomorphology of the site as little as possible. Raising the house to hover above the site, allowed it to retain its natural contour.
How does the experience in the home change throughout the seasons?
The seasons are amplified by the house. There is never a time in which you are not aware of changes in going on outside: the light, the water, the sky, the weather, the changes in the forest and the wildlife. Winter storms are particularly dramatic. Summer evenings are magical with fireflies and starry nights. The windows open to transform the entire house into a screen porch. We have intentionally left the space between us and the water in a wild state. First to give us more to see, but also to make the house a bit more private on the lake side.
The landscape changes by hours, by season and year to year, depending on how much snow fall, rain and sun it has received. Of course, there is also the wildlife. We had a few years in which beavers took most of the aspen and birch on the lake side creating a sunny fern garden with a good number of new aspen and spruce coming in.
What do you love about the North?
The northern landscape has a magnetic attraction for us. My husband grew up in Colorado, so the rocky boreal forest is familiar. The landscape seems so beautiful, but also a bit dangerous with storms, winter freezes, and unreasonably cold water! It is wonderful to be outside in the winter, but also wonderful to come into the protection of the house. The great lake horizon is still powerful inside. It seems as if you exist on the edge of the world. It promotes expansive thinking. At the same time, it is always relaxing and comforting.
We are also impressed with the people who live there, making a choice to live in this landscape, this rather remote place that requires a bit of resolve, hardiness, and resourcefulness. There is a very strong sense of values, a commitment to getting things right, but, at the same time, it prioritizes a more relaxed pace. There is some value in that.
Are there elements of the home's design or construction that are environmentally conscious?
Our sustainability approach always begins with durable construction that weathers well, is light on the landscape floating above it. The design reduces our consumption of natural resources by building less—the house is barely 1000 SF. We conserve energy with a robust envelope design and passive heating and cooling. Designed for natural ventilation, the house uses large four-by-ten sliding glass windows that make the most of lake breezes in the summer and passively heat the house in the winter. The roof, siding, and flooring are black amplifying heat retention. The in-floor heat and a recirculating fan on the fireplace make the house comfortable on the coldest, short January days. The wood structure made sense for the scale of construction and local trades, and reduced embodied carbon in the construction of the house.