When designing your dream Northern Michigan home, starting with the sun can change the entire way you build and live.
When architect Brad Butcher and his wife recently downsized, they left their sunny hilltop home with acreage for a charming house in the woods. After a few months, they came to a startling realization: “It’s beautiful, and we can’t stand it,” he admits, laughing a little ruefully.
There’s much to love about their new treed space, of course, and the couple has adapted, but Butcher and his wife didn’t realize how much they’d miss seeing the sunset on the horizon, or gazing up at the stars from their deck. The experience reaffirmed what Butcher has always known as a professional—vistas, views and natural light are transformative elements in the building process and have a profound impact on the way we live in and enjoy our spaces.
It’s a mantra he’s been guided by in his years as an architect, most recently as Senior Project Manager of Sidock Group. In fact, the first step in Butcher’s process with clients is to consider any building site to incorporate natural elements, in particular views and light, in order to integrate them into highly personalized custom designs. His projects tend to have a shared hallmark: Large window packages. “We view daylight as essential,” he says.
The most important component in building in Northern Michigan, Butcher explains, is bringing the outside inside, and forging a constant connection between what surrounds the home with the home itself. “At Sidock Group, we very consciously use views and light to visually expand the walls of the home,” Butcher says. “So even if you’re in a small room, if it has lots of glass, that room size expands instantly. Say you’re in a tiny office, but beyond your window is four miles of sight line to the woods, lake and horizon—that creates a tremendous sense of space.”
Beyond the aspects of shelter, comfort and beauty, a home is also providing an experience, Butcher says, and it’s critical to know you’re not limited or contained within a volume of space because of the impact that can have on your mind. “With views, light and a sense of space, your imagination can wander and your sightline can wander, creating a sense of freedom. The experience of sitting in a chair and gazing for miles at something that is inspiring and important to you is just critical,” he says.
When clients sit down to being the building process, he urges them to constantly be aware of creative and unusual opportunities for integrating windows, views and light into the home’s design. Here are some of the rules he lives by to help clients create unforgettable custom homes that pull the outside in.
Prioritize windows. Sometimes, Butcher has to convince clients to invest in expansive window packages, and there’s usually a temptation to trim costs. But more often than not, he says, clients regret that darkened hallway or dim bedroom more than investing in natural light.
Use them in unexpected places. Windows in a closet? Absolutely. “Artificial light in a closet isn’t the best,” Butcher says. Even though wall space is a premium, bringing windows into closets, up high to not get in the way of your hanging or shelf space, is a way to bring natural light into closets. These windows are not for views, but simply the quality of light.
One favorite project of Butcher’s was a butler’s pantry, where the client opted to add a small round window for a portal effect. The charm of that window didn’t stop there, however, the door from the kitchen to the pantry itself also had a portal window that aligned with the first, allowing for an intriguing view from the kitchen that extended through the two windows and into the landscape beyond. “The owner smiled all throughout that project, she couldn’t wait to see the finished design,” Butcher says.
Don’t put a “visor” on your windows. Because so many homes in Northern Michigan are built into topography like hillsides or lakefront, it’s not unusual to see walk-out lower levels with additional living spaces or bedrooms. The challenge? Not only are they already lacking opportunities for windows on some sides, but what windows are in place are often covered by an overhang or deck (like a visor) from above. The solution is to shift deck spaces away from the lower-level windows or break up continuous decking to allow for light to reach the windows of the lower-level rooms.
Extend the sight line. “There’s a term, ‘axis,’ we use in design,” Butcher explains. There are axes that run through projects, and the terminus, or end of them—let’s say that’s like a hallway with a dead end. Why wouldn’t we put a window there at the end? Then that hall becomes infinite in length. And the beauty of that is the window becomes a focal point.”
Wrap a room. Another way windows can create expansiveness is by “wrapping” or utilizing corner spaces. For example, in a rectangular space, like a living room, the primary wall of windows oversees the view. “But if you add more glass in a corner, even just a small single pane,” Butcher explains, “it expands the cone of vision, and that has a great visual impact.”
Our world has changed significantly in recent months, and feeling closed off from the outside world has been difficult. “If right now we can’t have the interaction we want with humans and also with the outside world, then your home might as well be solitary confinement,” Butcher says. This is where design can beautifully serve us and respond to our most basic human needs—by opening our hearts, minds and spaces to connect with a natural world that inspires.