Breaking House Rules in Traverse City

First-time visitors inevitably drive right past it. Boaters scanning the shoreline could easily miss it. This Long Lake newcomer blends in remarkably well – considering it’s a cottage with a rebel soul. "We broke lots of rules," says Traverse City architect Ken Richmond, speaking of the way the home departs from several ingrained design conventions.

But like a tattoo beneath a business suit, the attitude of this cottage stays under wraps. Muted forest colors, organic materials and a Craftsman-inspired design create an attractive but low-key exterior. Although it stretches three full stories at its lake face, the cottage "just disappears" behind the trees, a point of pride for its owners. "We’re really not showy people," one owner explains.

Not showy, but definitely creative. An art-loving couple with an appreciation for architecture, the owners wanted their cottage to be distinctive on the inside. For example, rather than singling out one architectural style for the cottage, they asked Richmond to incorporate several, including Arts & Crafts, cottage and contemporary – a risky assignment that can easily end up in design collision rather than cohesion. But Richmond pulled it off. Square-tapered Craftsman-style posts sit on one side of the staircase, while sleek metal handrails run up the other. Sophisticated Italian olive stone covers the back of the open fireplace; on its front, a pattern of ceramic tiles adds to the Craftsman look. Broad cottagey trim surrounds windows that feature asymmetrical, Arts & Crafts muntins.

The result is a smooth, thoughtful blend of styles that reveals its contrasting elements only upon a second look. Subtlety best describes Richmond’s approach to the architectural details. But when it came to the floor plan, he got downright radical. Consider the three-story fireplace. Richmond placed it opposite the lakeside windows so that he could use all the wall real estate he could for lake views. In that decision he violated a most sacred tenet of Michigan architecture: One must see flames and waves at the same time, even if the fire/water is off to the side. But as Richmond points out, "A fireplace is really for night use," – when water isn’t visible anyway.

The owners approved the placement of the fireplace early in the process – it is actually canted at a dramatic angle away from the walls – and the rest of the design pivots around it. Richmond wrapped a wide, open staircase to the second floor around the back of the fireplace. He added another stairway that winds down to the lower-level guest suite. Adding "excessive space" like the open staircase gives the impression that a house is bigger than it is, Richmond says. "It’s a fun thing to do in a small house."

The house runs long and slim, tailored to fit the deep but narrow lot, and is positioned perpendicular to the lake. Bump-out bay widows provide both extra views and cozy nooks for reading. The skinny footprint forced Richmond into another bold move. According to architectural convention, a well-designed house has its kitchen next to the garage so residents have a short schlep with their groceries. But in this case, abutting the two spaces would either move the kitchen away from the living room or eliminate a generous side porch.

So Richmond broke the rules again, with happy results. The owners don’t notice the few extra steps, but they appreciate the side porch. In fact, they’ve traded one convenience for another – a door between the pantry and the porch gives a cook easy access to the grill.

"In architecture, we sometimes think we have to have certain things certain ways all the time, but that’s not true," Richmond says. "Users are very adaptable. We adapt easily without really thinking about it." What matters most is accommodating people’s tastes and true lifestyles," he says. At that, Richmond succeeds in spades.

"We can’t tell you how much we like being here," say the owners. "We can’t take the smiles off our faces."

Janet Lively writes and teaches in Traverse [email protected]

Resources for: Breaking House Rules

Note: This article was originally published in January 2008 and was updated for the web February 2008.

Article Comments