A Naturally Modern Home in Missoula
Photos by Steve Keating
“Location, location, location” may be the three most important words in real estate, but when it comes to homes in the Rocky Mountain West—and this Missoula, Montana, home in particular—location is valuable, but it’s really all about the views.
“We wanted to live someplace that really let us experience the outdoors,” the homeowner says of the acre-plus property she and her husband discovered on a wooded east-facing rise above Rattlesnake Creek. Situated across from a spacious public park, it offered views of the water and Mount Jumbo that would remain protected in perpetuity.
Just one thing spoiled that sylvan idyll: the “bad 1980s-style ranch house with a lot of tacky improvements” that sat in the middle of it, the husband says. It had to go, so the couple set up camp in the backyard to get to know the property better, and called Seattle-based Balance Associates—since merged into Prentiss + Balance + Wickline Architects—for help. Soon, their new home began to take shape, in a style Tom Lenchek, a principal at the firm, describes as “natural modern.”
Created in collaboration with architect Kyle Zerbey, of Seattle-based Studio Zerbey Architecture + Design, and local contractor Joe McMahon of McMahon Custom Builders, the new structure combines simple geometric shapes with warm-hued, richly textured materials—wood, cast concrete and rusty-surfaced steel—that subtly blend with the surroundings. More importantly, much of the eastern side of the house is walled in energy-efficient windows—many of which slide or fold open—to create a year-round feeling that the natural environment is part of the living space itself.
No one would suspect that dramatic open-air effect at first glance. “We didn’t want the house to appear ostentatious or oversized,” the wife explains. “It’s a really clean approach, with as low a profile as possible,” Zerbey adds, noting that the structure’s unassuming street-facing façade actually sits about two and a half feet below grade, with fewer and smaller windows.
Once guests pass through a custom front door fashioned from bubinga wood, however, the spaces open up toward the creek through east-facing walls of glass. The living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows slide open to a spacious patio that seems all the more part of the indoor space thanks to a continuous concrete floor. The same goes for the dining room, where accordion-folding glass walls connect to a sheltered outdoor kitchen and dining area and, beyond, a cantilevered deck anchored by an outdoor fireplace.
The dining deck's custom perforated-steel table can be rolled beneath the overhang on a track set into the ipe-wood floor.
In a similar spirit of blending interior and exterior spaces, the architects and contractor thoughtfully integrated the structure with the landscape. A grassy pathway lined with rusted steel retaining walls, for example, zigzags down from the patio to a creekside riparian area the team restored during construction. And the home’s main level boasts a “green” roof on which a dozen different types of drought-tolerant succulents grow, not only insulating the house and reducing water runoff but also, from certain angles, visually blurring the boundary between manmade and natural environments.
That’s not to say that the house completely sacrifices privacy for the sake of views. Street-facing windows along the stairway and hall leading to the second-story master suite feature frosted glass, while the windows in a main-floor bedroom are dressed with opaque window coverings.
Even though the creek itself may not always be visible from the house, its presence is ever felt, reinforcing the sense that the owners are living outdoors even when snugly inside. “Especially in the springtime, when the water is really flowing,” the husband says, “I like to open our bedroom window because you can hear the creek so well.”
UNDERSCORING A CONNECTION TO NATURE
Though windows are the most obvious link between this modern home and its surroundings, carefully chosen materials reinforce the connection:
WOOD: Outside, old cottonwoods surround the property and recently planted aspens line the path to the creek. Inside, Douglas fir boards clad the ceiling; the kitchen cabinets, crafted by Andy Lennox, were fashioned from sapele wood; and a single giant piece of bubinga wood was cut to make both the dining table and the kitchen island.
WEATHERING STEEL: It’s a manmade alloy, but steel weathers to a rusty finish reminiscent of ruddy woods and autumn leaves, harmonizing with the surroundings. “It becomes invisible,” the homeowner says.
CONCRETE: Concrete may be an industrial material, but the architects and contractor used it in ways that subtly link it to the outdoors. Continuous walls of cast-in-place concrete visually connect the exterior to the interior, while the contours and striations of the wooden boards used to form the walls give the surfaces an organic texture.
ARCHITECTURE & INTERIOR DESIGN Prentiss + Balance + Wickline Architects & Studio Zerbey Architecture + Design CONSTRUCTION McMahon Custom Builders STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING Harriott Valentine Engineers CABINETS & FURNITURE The Lennox Craftsmen