As an avid cross-country skier and overall outdoor enthusiast, James Zajac heads north from Long Island’s East End to spend wintertime in Stowe, Vt. After renting for numerous seasons to acquaint himself with the rhythms of the land and the community, he acquired an approximately 3-acre plot. It’s adjacent to Vermont’s network of snowmobile trails, from which he can ski down to Stowe Village or up to Sterling Forest.
Zajac consulted the American Institute of Architects directory for a firm that matched his modern aesthetic; John McLeod and Steve Kredell of McLeod Kredell Architects (now McLeod Architects) in Middlebury fit the bill. “People looking for modern in Vermont tend to find us,” said McLeod, the firm’s founding partner. That McLeod is an associate professor of architecture at Middlebury College also appealed. “You can’t rest on your laurels when you have students,” the homeowner said.
Given Zajac’s interest in design, the team knew that the architecture would be special. That said, his functional needs were straightforward. There should be a welcoming but practical entry; combined kitchen, living, and dining spaces; a utilitarian workshop; and a bedroom suite. Yep, just one bedroom. “There are so many houses with eight empty bedrooms,” Zajac said. “I wanted to use all of the house.” Besides, he notes, Stowe is replete with lodges should visitors be inclined to venture up. He also wanted to keep the dwelling at one story.
Rather than go with the obvious — a square split into quadrants — the architects turned the idea inside out with a cruciform design. The 2,400-square-foot plan comprises four wings that emanate from a central 8-by-8-foot courtyard. “In traditional New England houses, there is a strong center, usually a four-sided chimney,” McLeod said. “Here, we have a shaft of light that brings energy to the center, counterbalancing the outward thrust of the wings.”
As for siting, the team built the home at the top of the property’s gently sloping meadow. McLeod mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s assertion that no house should be built on a hill. He maintained that they weren’t staking out the summit; it simply made sense to take advantage of the long, southern exposure for mountain views and solar gain. As such, the design actually conforms to Wright’s mantra that hill and house coexist to make the other better.
Each of the four wings reach out in a different cardinal direction, capturing distinct views and relationships to the landscape. The wing with the kitchen, dining, and living areas pushes to the south, looking down the meadow to Sugarbush and the Green Mountains beyond. The workshop, where Zajac waxes his skis and sometimes throws pots, faces the woods to the north and garners soft, diffused light. The west-facing bedroom and bath, complete with a soaking tub and outdoor shower, flirts with the forest’s edge.
The cruciform plan grants another perk: Four separate outdoor spaces nestled within the L-shape of each pair of the wings. Zajac hired H. Keith Wagner, principal of Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture in Burlington, to create a contemporary, minimalist landscape and marry his client’s needs to each quadrant. This included a fenced-in dog garden in the northwest quadrant and a dining patio with a grill in the southwest quadrant. Doors at each of the four vertexes make accessing these spaces easy.
Birch trees and wispy grasses — low maintenance, native plants were a must since Zajac isn’t there in summertime — anchor the northeast quadrant along the concrete path that leads to the home from the curved, gravel drive. While the living, sleeping, and workshop wings stretch nearly 29 feet into the landscape, the entry wing is less than half that length. The abbreviation leaves enough room for a car. The roof, however, extends the full distance, creating a porte cochère.
The exterior’s dark, recessed walls allow the gabled roofs to dominate. “It took major craftsmanship to get the metal seams to turn down the fascia,” said McLeod, giving kudos to Stowe-based Sisler Builders for a job well done down to every last detail. The design is both practical and dramatic. “The metal protects it from water, but it’s more about the desire to express the thickness and primacy of the roof,” McLeod said.
The roofs’ larch-clad underside, which runs outside and in, further accentuates the roofs’ enveloping form. The material also imbues warmth. “We had nice conversations about what constitutes cozy in the context of contemporary architecture,” Zajac recalled. “It resulted in wood-paneled ceilings that we deliberately kept to a human height to maintain the cozy factor.”
The honey tones of the larch counteract the cooler tones of the maple veneer plywood used for built-in cabinetry and freestanding forms that help divide spaces. In the entry, a unit houses coat closets and drawers on one side and hides the laundry on the other. In the bedroom, McLeod tucked the bed into a structure that separates the sleeping quarters from the rest of the house. Another floating unit offers clothing storage and a bit of privacy from the rain shower and soaking tub, not that anyone else is around.
Zajac hunkers down for the winter, luxuriating in the comfortable rooms, the landscape, and everything else Stowe has to offer. Sometimes, he drives up for fall foliage. This year, over Memorial Day weekend, he was charmed by the yearlings who cavorted across the property.
“The house is warm, simple, and aesthetically thoughtful,” McLeod said. “It’s really just a retreat for himself. He wasn’t interested in being showy.”
Architecture & interiors: McLeod Architects; mcleod-architects.com
Builder: Sisler Builders; sislerbuilders.com
Structural engineers: Sellers Treybal Structural Engineers; sts-engineers.com
Landscape architecture: Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture; wagnerhodgson.com
Marni Elyse Katz captures good design @StyleCarrot on Instagram and Twitter. Send comments to Address@globe.com. Sign up for the Address newsletter on Boston.com/realestate and follow us on Twitter @globehomes.