“What I love about the house is that you don’t step into it like some kind of great big open room. You get there slowly, through other spaces; it evolves,” says builder Kevin O’Donnell about the concept behind the Vail Valley home he helped build for a sophisticated couple with three teenage sons. “The couple had been renting a house in East Vail designed by architect Michael Suman that had aspects they liked a lot,” adds O’Donnell, who had collaborated on previous projects with the architect. “So when they decided to build, he was the obvious choice.”
Sidling up to a golf course on a gently rolling slope dotted with old-growth spruce trees, the new site offered dramatic views of the fairways and the iconic Gore Range. On it, though, stood a bland older house. A quick deconstruction of the existing residence left Suman with a blank canvas. “Our thought was to protect and enhance the natural characteristics of the site, incorporate the house within it, and capture the views,” he says.
Exterior materials, including random-square sandstone, split brownstone, copper cladding, and clear cedar siding, were chosen for their beauty as well as their ability to integrate with the surrounding environment, while the tri-level floor plan was angled to bring in the views and sunlight. “It makes you feel like you’re out in the woods, away from everything,” Suman says.
The public and private living spaces are separated by what he calls a “glass spine,” where a sculptural stairway provides the vertical connection. Early on, the homeowners expressed a desire to be on board in the design process. “If we wanted it to be something we really loved, we knew we needed to be involved,” says the husband, whose wife had the idea that the staircase handrail should have steel tree branch details; she also contributed suggestions about the front door and fireplace design. “The owners were very committed to ensuring that each decision reinforced the concept whole,” says Suman, who collaborated with designer Kari Foster and project manager Rachel Blackburn on the interiors. The architect handled the selection of all the primary millwork including heart walnut flooring, cabinetry, and window, wall, and trim detailing—while Foster chose wall colors, fixed finishes and furnishings based on the owners’ love of the mountains and desire for a more organic aesthetic overall. “The wife has a very wholesome and peaceful way about her, and they were both very concerned that the house be open and light and that it be pulled from nature,” the designer says.
To that end, Foster focused on natural materials in neutral tones. Furniture was custom-upholstered in leather, suede or organic wool, cotton and mohair, and the carpets were made from wild silk. “Wild silk has plusher, thicker pile, less shine, and an even more organic feel than the domestic variety,” notes Foster. Seating, from the living room sofas to the dining room chairs, was deliberately low-backed so as not to block views, and floor-to-ceiling windows and stacking glass doors were fitted with all but invisible motorized shades for the same reason.
According to landscape architect Kathy Aalto, the obvious emphasis on the front of the house was again those mountain and golf course views. “Out back we paid special attention to softening the hardscape and providing natural transitions,” says Aalto, who selected lawn and rock groupings planted with perennials to define patio and seating areas and to tie the house and landscape back to its surroundings.
“It was so refreshing to have the owners involved in making every material be as beautiful as it could be,” says Suman about the project’s success. “It helped all of us achieve the home’s most dramatic expression and is the reason why, in the end, everything looks so appropriate.”
— Linda Hayes