Building a residence on this forested, lakefront property in Whitefish, Montana, presented a delicate challenge: How to add a man-made structure without spoiling the natural beauty of the setting? This was top of mind for a couple who decided to establish roots in the idyllic location. Their goals were protecting the forest, building with nontoxic materials and smart technologies, and bringing lake views into every room. For architect Zach George, meeting those requirements became the reward. “It’s satisfying to make a piece of architecture that’s bold and stands out but that’s also subtle and blends into the forest,” he says.
Working in collaboration with general contractor Marty Beale, George devised a dwelling that sits against the natural slope of the lakefront. “The form of the home is a long bar clad in reclaimed barnwood that resembles the bark of the surrounding trees,” says the architect. The entryway, a weathered-steel cube with minimal glazing, treats guests to an impressive reveal as they come inside and see that the back of the house is lined entirely with windows. “We have views across the valley to the peaks of Glacier National Park,” explains the wife. The great room, open kitchen and primary bedroom occupy the main floor. The space’s skyward-sloping roof projects over two terraces, its birch ceiling flowing directly from indoors to out. A lower story offers additional bedrooms, a media room and a gym, as well as grab-and-go access to kayaks and paddleboards.
The new residence exists in service of the site. “This house isn’t intrusive or massive, it doesn’t smack you in the face,” says Beale, who, along with George, appreciated the owners’ high-performance building goals: above-code energy systems, durable end-grain flooring and dedication to healthy indoor air quality with nontoxic finishes, paints and glues. “What you see is what’s necessary,” Beale adds. “You can have a beautiful piece of sculpture to live in and still build responsibly.” To which George adds, “This is a modern house, but it’s not super polished outside— it feels natural in the landscape. Inside is where it gets softer, more refined.”
“I felt that Barb interpreted what we wanted for the interiors—clean, warm and modern, without feeling austere,” says the wife of designer Barb Cooke, a longtime friend in the community. “With lots of gray days in the winter, it was important to have warm tones and sunlight,” she adds. To keep things cozy, Cooke opted for walnut built-ins (“Walnut is a great choice because it brings warmth and can span many styles,” the designer notes) and a palette of blue and rust tones that play off a painting by Donna Gans, one of several local artists and craftspeople featured in the home. Looking to brighten the adjacent kitchen, Cooke designed a white ceramic backsplash inset with red glass tiles. The primary bedroom and downstairs media room feature shades of blue, reinforcing the connection with the lake. “The house is pretty large, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming—that’s due to Zach’s thoughtful approach to space planning,” Cooke adds.
And while the residence itself was the main project, there were other efforts happening simultaneously. “The homeowners wanted to preserve the natural landscape by peeling it back and rolling it up like sod,” explains the architect. “I’d been aware of harvesting native plants and saving topsoil—where the seed bed is located—for many years, and I knew that our local landscape contractor David Noftsinger had that experience,” adds the wife. “Prior to breaking ground, David harvested more than 350 trays of natives, and then the excavator scraped and carefully saved all the topsoil.” More than 1,750 plants spanning 46 species were carefully stored on site for the duration of construction before being restored to the landscape. “There would have been no way of replicating that diversity using nursery stock,” the wife notes. There was also no doubt about restoring the property’s log cabin, built by a daughter of one of the original homesteaders. Now it serves as the perfect place for an overflow of house guests—something bound to happen in this pristine, resort-like setting.
The result is an abode that gently inserts itself into nature to become one with the land, designed to endure for generations to experience. As George says, “When you are here, it really feels like you’re living in the landscape.”