Building your dream Northern Michigan home and making the land better for it? This couple shows us how it’s done with the help of a star-studded conservation crew + prestigious building resources.

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For a few years, Gera and Jim looked for a place to consolidate everything in their lives. They had a business office in Elk Rapids, a lake home north of town, their children were grown and on their own, and it was time to try something different.

One snowy day, on their way home from skiing, the couple saw a small sign that read “For Sale by Owner.” It was an old cherry orchard they’d passed by many times, always wondering what might be on the ridge beyond.

They walked up the hill and were awestruck by the panorama: A beautiful expanse of Elk Lake, East Grand Traverse Bay and cherry orchards to the west, plus a glimpse of Torch Lake as the icing on the cake.

Living room view with high ceilings

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

This was heaven, but there was also a challenge: The 20-acre orchard’s cherry trees were on their last legs, and after Gera and Jim built their dream house, what would they do with the rest of the land? The unmaintained trees had become pests to two neighboring orchards, and the land needed to transition to something else.

The couple, who volunteer with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy in Traverse City, contacted Vic Lane, a senior conservation project manager there. He steered them toward a contractor and others who helped them put all the pieces together to do a conservation project that eventually will include more than three acres of native trees and shrubs with 14-plus acres of meadow filled with 30 species of native grasses and wild- flowers. It’s a win-win for the region, and the couple.

“The opportunity to implement a conservation project was integral to our decision to purchase the land and build a home,” says Jim. He and Gera credit the staff at the Antrim County Natural Resources Conservation Service for their guidance and technical assistance in developing the plan to restore wildlife habitat and develop pollinator habitat after the task of removing 2,400 cherry trees. Jim has had some experience with this: He helped plant trees on his grandfather’s dairy farm near Pinconning almost 60 years ago, and his parents retired to an apple farm and farm market, where he learned a few things about orchards.

Living room with a couch and chairs

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Kitchen with a large island

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

As for their dream home, they contacted Jay Merchant of Elk Rapids’ J Merchant Builders to draw up and create their home on the ridge. They call the style contemporary rural design, inspired by the agricultural setting and with the simple, clean lines and materials of farm outbuildings: corrugated metal, steel and concrete.

“We worked together really well,” says Merchant. “Jim studied architecture in college, so he had a pretty good vision for what they were looking for, and they’re both artistic and very good communicators, so it all was very smooth. It’s nice when people enjoy the process and are creative. It keeps us challenged and thinking about new ways to do things.”

The only hairy situation Merchant had to contend with was the weather. His team worked through winter on the ridge against a near-constant northwest wind. “It was always blowing,” he recalls.

Kitchen with new drawers

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Dining room with table and chairs

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

The couple moved into their 2,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home upon its completion in October 2021. The main living area is all on one level, with a second-story studio above the garage wing and an unfinished basement under half the house. Outdoors, there are a screened porch, and a patio and courtyard from which to enjoy the fresh air and mind-blowing views.

“Every room has a unique view and natural light,” says Gera, adding that at night they can see the glow from Traverse City, the bay and other big-sky views from the tall windows. “On our first night, when I looked out our bedroom window, I spotted the Big Dipper, perfectly framed overhead.”

“Jay understood what we were looking for,” adds Jim, whose fine arts degree is in serigraphy (he’s hoping to build a workshop and a “gentleman’s barn” soon). Gera is a retired marketing communications specialist and project manager, and now has a well-equipped, serene place to pursue her interest in fiber arts.

When the outdoor conservation project is finally finished and the day is done, Gera and Jim will not only be able to relax in their beautiful home and admire the stars, but also feel good about leaving their special piece of land a little better than they found it.

Bathroom with floating sink

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Bedroom featuring a bed with grey bedding

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Patty LaNoue Stearns is a longtime Michigan journalist and former staffer at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine and Northern Home & Cottage.

The Conservation Crew

Meet the team who helped put together Bob and Gera’s conservation project:

Bed with wooden headboard

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Rural Sensibilities Home Building Resources

Builder & Kitchen Cabinetry J Merchant Builders
Appliances | Max’s Service
Flooring & Window Shades | Harbor Flooring
Gas Stove | Source Julien
Counter Surfaces | Blasius
Lighting & Ceiling Fans | All-Phase Electric, YLighting
Landscaping | Designs in Bloom Carolyn Thayer, BLA, M.C.N., Double K Services Kris Kammerer: 231.649.2240
Living Room Furnishings | Betsie Bay Furniture
Windows & Doors | Thomas & Milliken Millwork, Inc.

Sitting area with sofa and leather chair

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Photo(s) by Jacqueline Southby