Growing up near Detroit, John Burchett dreamed of being an architect and building a house in the woods on a Michigan lake. Instead, he became a public policy expert in Washington, D.C.—with a cookie-cutter weekend pad in Delaware. But after purchasing a wooded lot in Rehoboth Beach, the Google executive returned to his childhood visions, hiring architect Tom Kamm as a collaborator to design a modernist tree house by the shore.
Burchett had gotten to know Kamm, along with his wife and business partner Kelly Saunders, through mutual friends, and the three had enjoyed philosophical discussions about architecture and design. Burchett appreciated Kamm’s minimalist sensibility, honed by his production work for such playwrights as Robert Wilson, Tony Kushner and Charles Mee. Kamm also has a Motor City connection—he was born there, and in DC, he designed the dark, moody set for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production of Detroit last fall. So when the time came to commission an architect and designer, “It was clear that Tom was going to be the first person I would call,” Burchett says. “It was wonderful that Tom and Kelly let this process be totally inclusive. They had the expertise, and I had the concepts and vision.”
The resulting three-story house is a modern hybrid a shingle-style beach cottage and Michigan north-woods lake house. The boomerang-shaped structure comprises two wings separated by a circulation spine that links the floors. Both halves are transparent on their east and west ends, offering views through the house to a canal and the woods beyond. The north and south elevations offer more selective views while providing privacy from neighbors.
Airy but not grandiose, the house is sited among pine, oak and walnut trees on property that slopes down to the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal. Kamm had to insert the house carefully into the lot so that the vegetation would cool the structure without blocking the solar panels on the roof. Rather than scrape the lot and landscape anew, he preserved as many trees as possible. “The house looks like it’s been there for 20 years,” he says, “unlike the typical scenario, where you have to have to wait that long for plantings to mature before you get that sense of place.”
Horizontal bands of windows frame slices of the natural surroundings, from forest floor to leafy canopy, while the cantilevered great room brings the windows to the tips of the branches. Outside, a rear deck frames views of the canal, woods and sky. “It’s an homage to James Turrell’s Skyspaces,” Kamm explains, referring to the artist’s semi-enclosed chambers that frame the sky through an aperture in the roof. Builders Charles and Jeff Garrison playfully dubbed Kamm’s design “the sky room,” a name that stuck.
As Google’s director of public policy, Burchett spends nearly half his life on airplanes, winging off to Latin America and Canada, so the house is his weekend retreat to hang out with family and friends. They pile onto the huge charcoal sectional by Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams to watch TV, which is built into a storage wall clad in warm maple; the millwork echoes the exterior gray siding and visually connects the living room and kitchen.
In his old house, weekends centered on where to eat out. Now, Burchett’s guests prefer to stay in. “They never want to leave,” he says happily. However, he’s working on one new amenity that might entice them to venture into the marshes—a dock on the canal so the gang can boat to breakfast in town.