Northern Michigan Home & Cottage: Joe Lambke, owner of the Chicago-based architectural firm Animate, has designed some truly monumental projects: trendy urban restaurants, the Theory and Computing Sciences Building at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and even a thought-provoking modern addition to a neo-Gothic funeral home. Yet, he says a diminutive home he designed for a young family of four, set on 40 forested acres near the equally diminutive town of Bellaire, is one of his favorite projects to date. The house that Joe describes as sculptural, and an attempt to bring life to Modernism, emerged from a harmonious collaboration between the architect and his clients. “The trust went both ways,” Joe says. “The clients trusted our aesthetic, but there were ways we adapted to their lifestyle as well.”

Joe, who has been visiting Northern Michigan since he was a child, understood the family’s desire for a structure that accentuated the connections between their home, the natural world around it and their outdoor-oriented lifestyle. “Because of this focus on the outdoors, we wanted to detail the house so that it was visually clean, and also easy to maintain,” he says. To that end, a full wall of glass in the main living room welcomes in the forest just outside, as do windows designed to frame the view in other rooms. The home also has outdoor living spaces—a deck built from trees removed from the site for dining and relaxing and a smaller deck off the master bedroom. Concrete floors and walls, recessed baseboards that don’t gather dust, and free-flowing spaces make the home easy to keep clean—allowing more time for the family to spend outside.

The blueprint for the 2,400-square-foot home includes flexible, multi-use spaces such as a single generous-sized bathroom with zones that allow comfortable use by multiple family members. In another example, the room-sized pantry off the kitchen triples as a laundry room and gardening shed.

The design language of the airy house makes use of partial-height walls to increase the sense of spaciousness and to distribute ambient light bouncing off the curved ceiling from a bank of upward-facing fixtures that runs the length of the interior. Primary colors on surfaces add life to the mostly white color scheme chosen to contrast with the outdoors and, Joe adds, “allow the space to highlight the clients' creative life.”

Typical materials were used in unique ways throughout the home. Joe credits Midlake Builders and their subcontractors for their flexibility and meticulous execution of his plan. 

The curving roofline, for example, was constructed using prefabricated roof trusses typically used on pole barns. Specially engineered concrete walls create a quiet atmosphere inside the home and a very well insulated envelope to capitalize on the passive solar design.

Careful site orientation and a south-facing glass wall with a gently arched overhang welcome sunlight during winter but keep the house fully shaded in summer, when the sun is highest. The home stays cozy with a masonary woodstove supplemented by radiant heat that runs on a small, on-demand boiler tucked into a closet.

Efficiency is a theme, indeed. But equally important, according to Joe, is infusing the space with elements that are “usable, adaptable, and enjoyable.” The family has put his tenet to the test by rethinking the dining space as a gymnastics area complete with a balance beam, and allowing their preschool children to turn their not-yet-needed desk spaces into play areas. It's this kind of freedom to make the space their own that delights the architect. He keeps a picture of a fabric grasshopper pieced together by one of the kids as a reminder that his design is merely a backdrop for the real life that happens in a truly lived-in home. 

This article is available in print in the December issue of Northern Home & Cottage. Order your copy now!