With its lean profile and modern mien, the Chameleon House has an unexpected and captivating presence.

This home is featured in the September 2008 issue of Northern Home & Cottage, a bi-monthly home publication included in all subscriptions to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe! 

A stern wind blows across Lake Michigan as Sue and Dan Brondyk battle spotted knapweed on the hillside alongside their vacation home. They yank the pest out by its non-native roots, hoping to restore the meadow on their one-acre lot disturbed during construction four years ago. “We’re trying to let the hill go back to its natural state,” Sue says. “We want to make it look like the house was just dropped in here.”

Flanked by cherry orchards and with a full view of Lake Michigan, this rural stretch of M-22 is no place for a tame lawn, the Brondyks decided when they bought the Leelanau County property 10 years ago. Not that they were ever much interested in a suburban look. Aficionados of the hip and smart Dwell magazine, the Brondyks like their architecture edgy and environmentally responsible. Dan, especially, is intrigued by the attention to detail he sees in buildings in Asia, where he travels periodically on business.

When it was time to build, the Brondyks sought out the West Coast firm Anderson Anderson Architects because of its pioneering work in prefabricated, industrial-style dwellings. The Anderson brothers designed the house to resemble an agricultural structure, using corrugated metal siding and ensconcing the building in galvanized steel scaffolding. Long, narrow strips of windshield-grade acrylic attach to the scaffolding to create a reflective skin, leading the architects to dub the project the Chameleon House.

In the intense light of sunset and short winter days, the house shines with the color of the sky, becoming one with the landscape. Yet with its 32-foot-high profile and roadside location, the Chameleon House does not otherwise go unnoticed. Some people seek it out, having seen it on the Travel Channel or read its praises in architectural publications. Passersby who chance upon the towering structure feel free to stop, consider and comment, as if examining art in a museum, Sue says.

The Brondyks, who ascribe to the not-so-big-house philosophy, hope these curbside critics get the message that small is huge; despite its height, the four-bedroom house is only 1,650 square feet.

But the couple says they built for personal reasons, not to make a statement. After years of camping and staying at motels Up North, they longed for a permanent retreat and lots of shared space for their close-knit family of five. As such, the house is everything they had hoped for. “All places have a vibe, a feeling,” Dan says. “This is a real cheerful, bright house.”

Sunshine pours in through the tall front curtain wall and lights the house from top to bottom, thanks to an open design built around a middle staircase. The floor of each level is little more than an expanded landing along a stairway. Factory-tough open-tread metal stairs angle up four-and-a-half feet at a time, connecting six levels above ground, plus two more in the basement. The seventh level actually “floats” free of the sidewalls. Anchored to an I-beam frame, the house is sturdy as a vault. Dan jumps up and lands hard, but the floor doesn’t so much as jiggle.

Sue likes the open design because it allows family members to feel connected even when they’re on different floors. Working at her desk on the eighth level, she can hear a conversation in the kitchen or the chatter of daughters Kate and Grace from the den. The only drawback to all this openness is that anything spilled at the top of the grated-tread stairway creates a multi-story mop job. That glass of wine, the time the dog got sick … Sue can laugh about it now.

Fortunately, they designed the house with hard surfaces—concrete and rubber-tiled floors, unfinished maple plywood paneling, wipeable furniture—to make cleaning and maintenance easy. There’s never a musty cottage smell, Sue says, and the house is casual and comfortable for the family and numerous houseguests, who come up year round.

Their kids’ friends particularly love to visit, and no wonder. Ascending the open staircase feels like climbing a grandfather pine, especially the final flight, which cantilevers off the backside of the house, high above the campfire pit. The catwalk leads to a rooftop deck and an astounding view. One clear day, the Brondyks saw four islands: North and South Fox and North and South Manitou. On many clear nights, they’ve marveled at meteor showers and searched for the Northern lights.

On this blustery day, the Brondyks’ son Kyle, an affable 15-year-old, points out another feature of the house—the whistling sound made by tiny holes in the scaffolding. “When the wind is at the right angle, the house sings to us,” Kyle says. A singing chameleon? How cool is that?

Color this Chameleon Green

Underneath its metal and plastic skin, the Chameleon House is all green. The exterior walls use structural insulated panels (known as SIPs—a thick layer of foam between sheets of oriented strand board) that provide high R-value insulation and limit the need for framing lumber. Radiant heat works particularly well in the concrete floors, and commercial-grade aluminum windows are extra snug. In summer, the SIPs and concrete floors also help keep the house cool. Window placement was designed to maximize cross ventilation; the house has no air conditioning and it’s rarely missed, the Brondyks say.

Anderson Anderson Architecture, designers of the house, specialize in prefabrication, meaning that they design around the dimensions of the materials used, another green feature. The SIPs and maple plywood panels were installed with little cutting; the metal stairs came from factory stock. The house went up quickly and with a minimum of waste.

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Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski