One family demonstrates that the only thing better than taking your Up North toys out to play might be putting them away. Explore the gorgeous views and sustainable design that went into this East Jordan barndominium in Charlevoix County.

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The Van Solkemas—Kevin, Renita and their four adult children—love Northern Michigan’s four seasons and they know how to make the most of them: hunting, fishing, boating, swimming, snowmobiling, skiing and sometimes just plain soaking in the scenery. Originally from East Lansing, the family honed their vacation skills in a condo on Lake Charlevoix in East Jordan as the kids were growing up. Then Kevin’s job took them to Chicago, and as years went by, it became more and more difficult to pull everyone together and head to Northern Michigan, so they sold the condo.

In 2014, Kevin and his (by then) two adult sons joined each other for a fishing trip that had them reminiscing about their once-upon-a-time East Jordan family vacations. Call those memories the beginning of the next chapter of Van Solkema Up North vacations. Kevin and Renita began searching for property to build a vacation home where their grown family could gather. Their search, focused on the East Jordan area, soon turned up 73 acres covered in sugar maples and tucked high in the hills overlooking the Six Mile Lake valley.

The day before the couple was to close on the property, Kevin and his youngest son drove up to look at it a final time before signing. It was a gorgeous October day and the maples were aflame with color. They drove his son’s pickup to a fern-covered clearing in the forest. “We threw down the tailgate, had lunch, and looking over this valley I thought, ‘If God ever permits me to build on this property, this is exactly where I’d do it.’” He and his son marked the spot by building a fire ring out of stones. Two years later, the Van Solkemas were able to purchase an adjacent 80-or-so acres, bringing their total property to 150 acres.

Views from Barndominium in East Jordan

Photo by Dan Hasty

Outiside view of Barndominium in East Jordan

Photo by Dan Hasty

Barndominium in East Jordan side profile

Photo by Dan Hasty

Four years later the couple, ready to build now, turned to contractor Craig Boyd of Boyd Construction Company, based in Petoskey. Boyd, in turn, introduced them to Michael Karr, a young, forward- thinking architect of North45 architecture also based in Petoskey. “We didn’t go to Karr saying, ‘Here’s the sort of plan we want you to build us,’” Kevin recalls. “We just went to him with the concept for a lodge that would achieve several purposes—a living space for the whole family to gather in, also as a deer camp setting.”

Beyond those features, the Van Solkemas wanted storage for their recreational vehicles—with the living and the storage all under one roof. “I call it a barndominium,” Kevin says. “The concept is really catching on with people who don’t have space at their waterfront, or the ability to store their recreational vehicles in a dedicated storage barn.”

The Van Solkemas’ wish list included two more important features that particularly appealed to Karr, who designs with an emphasis on sustainability: the use of as many natural materials as possible and a geothermal groundwater heating system—systems that are known for their energy and cost-efficiency.

Fireplace at Barndominium in East Jordan

Photo by Dan Hasty

“He nailed it,” says Kevin of the first set of conceptual drawings that Karr presented. While the Van Solkemas and Karr worked together to fine-tune the details, the 40-by-90-square-foot building is laid out basically the way Karr first drew it. The front third, amounting to 1,200 square feet, is devoted to an efficient, uncluttered living space, while the rest is storage. The open living area centers around a fireplace and chimney—clad in Elite Blue Granite Ledgestone, a natural stone—that reaches to the ceiling. Rough-sawn pine beams and ceiling cladding, and a polished concrete floor (which holds the radiant heat pipes from the geothermal system) round out the rustic look. The open kitchen, designed primarily by Renita, is simple. The commercial-sized refrigerator and freezer are actually housed in a pantry steps away from the kitchen to keep clutter down—a layout that Renita says works just fine.

The lodge sleeps eight with one enclosed bedroom and an open loft/bunk room upstairs. While there is just one bathroom, Renita worked carefully with Karr on a design that can function comfortably for multiple people. Among the bathroom’s features is a dressing room that completely closes off from the toilet and shower, and even a urinal that also has a door for privacy.

Living room at Barndominium in East Jordan

Photo by Dan Hasty

The handsome exterior evokes an American West or Australian Outback ranch home. But the finishes make it soar—Elite stone and reclaimed barn wood exterior, rafter tails, decorative brackets, a horizontal fenestration of handsome dark-framed paned windows and, to top it all off, a Corten steel roof that has already rusted to an earthy red.

The Van Solkemas couldn’t be happier with the team who took the plan from blueprint to fruition: Michael Karr, Boyd Construction Company and Sean Cook from Lake Charlevoix Landscape who installed an organic, low-maintenance yard. And then there is excavator Hugh Lambert, who basically saved the day with a workable driveway that winds around wetlands and then up a steep incline. “When we first looked at the property we said, ‘Well, I guess it is up there, but there is no way to get to it,’” Kevin recalls. “Hugh said, ‘I can do this.’”

In just two years, the structure, christened Thunderwood Lodge, has indeed served as a hunting lodge, but it’s also been a family gathering space, a shelter during the pandemic lockdown, even a venue for both their daughter’s and their youngest son’s weddings. Meanwhile, it has safely stored the family’s vehicles. No doubt, this barndominium has more than proven its worth.

Kitchen at Barndominium in East Jordan

Photo by Dan Hasty

Barndominium Building Resources

Architect | Michael Karr, North45 Architecture
Contractor | Boyd Construction Company
Exterior Siding & Flooring | Surfaces Material Gallery
Geothermal Heating | Top Notch Heating, Cooling and Geothermal
Windows | Old Mission Windows
Landscaping | Lake Charlevoix Landscaping, 231.838.8663
Excavator | Hugh Lambert Hugh’s Excavating, 231.675.9564

Dining room at Barndominium in East Jordan

Photo by Dan Hasty

Photo(s) by Dan Hasty