A Shou Sugi Ban Retreat in Vermont Frames Dramatic Mountain Views

A Shou Sugi Ban Retreat in Vermont Frames Dramatic Mountain Views

By Marni Elyse Katz / Photos by Lindsay Selin Photography
Presented by Marvin
Architect Elizabeth Herrmann designs a modern farmhouse for a family looking to flee steamy summers in Texas and connect with nature.

This series is presented by Marvin. We selected this home because its inspired daylighting scheme nurtures connection with the outdoors, and it shares a focus on well-being with Marvin’s new Awaken Skylight and Skycove.

Vermont’s Mad River Valley is quite a ways from Manhattan—and that’s exactly what attracted the owners of this shou sugi ban summer home. Seeking a respite from the stimulation of the city, the couple spent long weekends, then multiple weeks at a time, decompressing among the red barns, covered bridges, and country roads, and eating American flatbread pizza at Lareau Farm. "When we got up there, we just breathed differently," the husband says. "Those trips made us feel like we had inner Vermonters in us."

The architect and owners were in sync on every aspect of the design, including the desire for shou sugi ban siding. "I had been interested in shou sugi ban for a long time," Herrmann says. "These Japanese cypress boards have been charred, wire-brushed, stained, and oiled. We did a lot of testing to come up with the right dark gray color; it changes in the light." 

The oversized, oak pivot door has a hefty feel. "It’s about the tactile qualities and the craft," Herrmann says. Slate tile with a cleft finish in a herringbone pattern connects the entryway to the outdoors. The abstract painting is by British Columbia–based artist Andrea Soos. 

The owners asked that each bunk be its own little pod complete with bookshelves and reading light. "The kids love the bunk room," the husband says. "At home, the twins share a room, and their little brother is the odd man out. For twelve weeks, he gets to be a part of it here."

Eventually, the couple got married, had twin girls, and moved to Austin before the arrival of a baby boy, making trips to the Green Mountain State a challenge. "The circumstances tested our affection for Vermont," the husband says. "We had to decide if it would remain our happy escape." Ultimately, they opted to go all-in. 

To arrive at the front door, one travels on an informal path of bluestone pavers, then turns 90 degrees to enter. "Discovery and mystery is part of the charm." Herrmann says. The seven-foot cantilevered covering has an underside of hemlock slats that extends indoors.

"You’re drawn deep into the house and given clues where to go," Herrmann says. "Natural light guides you through."

The hemlock slat ceiling runs throughout the first floor, save for the living room. The slats hide acoustical batting and tracks for lighting. It also adds warmth, texture, and interest, and provides a sense of continuity. 

The couple purchased six acres on a mountain and hired Bristol-based architect Elizabeth Herrmann to design a family getaway. "It was a lovefest from the first conversation," the husband says. Herrmann concurs: "We had similar ways of looking at things. It was as though I was designing a house for myself."

A music room was a must-have for the owners. "My wife plays piano an hour a day, and I like to play records," the husband says. "The kids know this is Mom and Dad’s room." The seating is by Blu Dot. 

The living room, dining room, and kitchen are distinct spaces while still being very open. "It was fun to come up with a slightly different approach to an open-living concept," Herrmann says. The artwork on the left is by Sonnenzimmer. The abstract on the right is by Ludovic Philippon, a painter in the south of France. 

By wedging the house into the hill, Herrmann was able to accommodate the owners’ desire to present a low-key face to the neighbors. Living room sliders open onto a concrete terrace that leads down to the backyard.

The husband describes their vision as "a modern barn with a lot of negative space, steel, and big windows." He concedes that nobody will mistake the home for a farmhouse, but that the shapes are very familiar to the region. Indeed, Herrmann’s design comprises a trio of gabled volumes. The primary bedroom suite, set perpendicular to the others at the right of the slate-tiled entry, occupies the smallest volume, and the cathedral-ceilinged living room pushes out on the left side of the home’s main, two-story volume.

Board-formed concrete provides a pleasing but not overly decorative finish for the backside of the lower level. The living room volume and concrete terrace sit atop the garage.

The lower level, which has a polished concrete floor and comfy Blu Dot sectional, is where the kids run around, do craft projects, and watch television. A plain barn door separates this area from the guest suite. There are also sliders, so the kids can run out to the yard. 

Ann Sacks pillow tiles in the lower level guest bath have a Japanese feel.

The couple carefully weighed having enough space for the children and dogs to hop, skip, and jump—and for family and friends to visit comfortably—with not being wasteful. "At every step, we asked ourselves, ‘Do we need it, and will we use it?’" the husband says. While the house clocks in at 5,000 square feet, the front facade is not at all overwhelming, thanks it being tucked into the hillside. This also allowed for a sun-filled lower level with sliders to the grassy backyard.

A corner fireplace faced in Ann Sacks concrete tiles anchors the living room. "There are LED lights behind the peeled back tiles," Herrmann says. "There is an apparent human touch; each one is a little different." 

The living room occupies the middle volume and has a cathedral ceiling. "It’s the largest room in the house and has the best views," the husband says. "It’s where we entertain and encourage the kids to be with family." Sliders open to the concrete terrace where they gather every night to watch the sunset. The landscape is by Australian-American photographer Brooke Holm.  

Herrmann and the building team from Red House collaborated on the hardscape and simple landscape gestures. "The owners didn’t want to worry about maintaining fussy gardens while they’re there," Herrmann says. Flywheel Industrial Arts fabricated the powder-coated railings.

In creating what she describes as "light, open spaces with easy access to the outdoors and minimal fuss," Herrmann employed pared-down color and material palettes with subtle textures indoors and out. "The house only has four major notes," the husband says, referring to the charred and wire-brushed Japanese cypress exterior siding; black steel windows, rails, stair; white oak cabinetry and doors; and hemlock ceiling slats. "We constantly removed ideas to get as little design as possible."

Flywheel Industrial Arts fabricated and installed the floating steel-and-oak stair based on Herrmann’s design, which balances geometry with organic rhythms. If Herrmann noticed a repeated pattern when she glanced at it, she played with the spacing until her eye wasn’t drawn to any single spot. "We were excited by the combination of a massive, steel superstructure and a non-repeating baluster pattern," says Benjamin Cheney, a partner at the Montpelier-based firm. Bocci pendant lights illuminate the stair evenly and look beautiful.

Still, there are flourishes. In addition to the hemlock-slatted acoustic ceiling, Herrmann designed a two-flight, steel staircase with chunky, white oak treads and rails with a rhythmic, non-repeating pattern of balusters. She likens the dynamic pattern to "the shifting geometry you’d see in a natural environment, like grasses blowing in the breeze." The feature is repeated on the rails of the concrete slab terrace that wraps the living room, as well as on the rail of the second-floor, bedroom suite balcony.

The stair is visible through the large picture window at the front of the house. The ceiling slats rest atop the huge steel beam that runs parallel to the staircase.

Magnificent mountain views and woodsy scenes are framed by oversize steel windows. "Each room has a unique relationship to the landscape with its own set of views that ensure you never forget where you are," says Herrmann, who strives for multiple perspectives from every room. "The black windows turn the views into framed pieces of art."

The blackened Branch Flower chandelier is by Australian lighting company Giffin Design. "It looks slightly random, but it’s not," says Herrmann, who likens the dining room to a glass box.

In some places, such as the vestibule, windows offer a peek through the house. In others, such as at the foot of the stair, the giant picture window looks to the hillside, offering a moment of stillness. The dining room, perfectly proportioned for seating eight, is essentially a diorama with two walls of floor-to-ceiling glass dramatically oriented to the mountains. And in the kitchen, the gorgeously spare woodwork and metalwork, is "meant to disappear," according to the husband, who adds, "It’s all eyes on the mountain." 

Local cabinetmaker Peter Pomerantz made the custom, white oak cabinetry and Flywheel Industrial Arts fabricated the steel hood. "It’s about lines and shadows; no hardware," Herrmann says. 

After a year of overseeing the process virtually—they only visited twice, once when the foundation was under six feet of snow—the husband notes that it was breathtaking to walk in last summer and see that everything they’d planned had been delivered seamlessly: "It was what we dreamed of, come to life." 

The couple switch from the first-floor suite to the upstairs suite when the grandparents visit. "Waking up to the sunrise there is magical," the husband says. The abstract painting is by Andrea Soos.

The primary bath on the first floor has a custom vanity and a randomly textured tile backsplash.

The shared second-floor bath has a black tile backsplash that references the home’s shou sugi ban siding. The oak and cold-rolled steel vanity echoes the design of the kitchen’s furniture-like island. 

Related Reading:

This Petite Vermont Farmhouse Is Chock-Full of Scandinavian Charm

A Little Black Cabin Keeps Things Simple for a Family of Four in Vermont

Project Credits: 
Architect: Elizabeth Herrmann / @eh_architect
Builder: Red House Inc. / @redhousebuilding
Structural Engineer: Artisan Engineering
Civil Engineer: McCain Consulting
Cabinetmaker: Pomerantz Cabinetry / @pomerantz_cabinetry
Steel Fabrication: Flywheel Industrial Arts / @flywheelindustrialarts  

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