These Cabins in a Utah Ski Resort Are Designed to Help Spark Social Change
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These Cabins in a Utah Ski Resort Are Designed to Help Spark Social Change

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By Alia Akkam
Shunning ostentation, Horizon Neighborhood recasts the ski resort as a collaborative, ecologically minded ideas hub.

Powder Mountain, about an hour north of Salt Lake City International Airport, is one of the country’s largest ski resorts. It is also the headquarters of Summit Series, an organization that brings together entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, artists, activists, and scientists through a number of discussion-sparking events—including a high-profile, invitation-only annual conference. To nurture imagination, innovation, and social change, Summit Series commissioned Halifax, Nova Scotia– and Denver–based MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects to develop the Horizon Neighborhood. 

"It is a tremendous challenge to build 9,000 feet from the ground, and the site typically receives more than 500 inches of snowfall per year," says architect Brian MacKay-Lyons. "There were no roads or services, and we needed to minimize the amount of concrete used in this project due to the high cost of pouring concrete on a mountaintop."

"It is a tremendous challenge to build 9,000 feet from the ground, and the site typically receives more than 500 inches of snowfall per year," says architect Brian MacKay-Lyons. "There were no roads or services, and we needed to minimize the amount of concrete used in this project due to the high cost of pouring concrete on a mountaintop."

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Unlike such ritzy alpine retreats as Aspen, Vail, and Beaver Creek in Colorado, Powder Mountain is being reimagined as a conscientious, progressive village that celebrates the land. Horizon Neighborhood, the first project by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple’s satellite U.S. office, is a crucial step towards a vision led by Summit Series. Built at a 9,000-foot elevation, it will ultimately encompass 30 customized cabins, of which eight have been completed. 

Some cabins follow the mountain's contours while a cross-grain version juts out over the blanket of snow.

Some cabins follow the mountain's contours while a cross-grain version juts out over the blanket of snow.

This mountain utopia is "based on the values of community, ecology, and creativity," points out Brian MacKay-Lyons, principal at the architecture firm. 

Cabins are accessed via steel bridges on the second floor, a clever way of responding to the extreme annual snowfall amounts.

Cabins are accessed via steel bridges on the second floor, a clever way of responding to the extreme annual snowfall amounts.

Owners choose from one of four typologies, opting for cabins that either dramatically project over the mountainside or subtly follow the contours of the environment. Ski areas are commonly strewn with grandiose houses, but Horizon’s homes, ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet, are pared-down alternatives that honor the surroundings. 

The cabins have a uniform sculptural look that the clients dubbed "Heritage Modern."

The cabins have a uniform sculptural look that the clients dubbed "Heritage Modern."

Cedar-clad barns dotting Eden Valley below were a reference point for MacKay-Lyons and his team, leading to the cabins’ restrained cedar-shingled roofs and vertical shiplap cedar walls. Aluminum-clad wood windows and additional cedar dress the interiors to establish a calming, monolithic look. 

One of the highlights of these cabins are the mountain views that fill its rooms.

One of the highlights of these cabins are the mountain views that fill its rooms.

"I have a longstanding interest in vernacular building traditions, where both unity and variety are achieved by type and variation within a system," explains MacKay-Lyons. "I’m also inspired by their archetypal nature, how they appear to be simultaneously contemporary and timeless, and also modest and monumental."

In the living area, a muted palette takes cues from the outdoors.

In the living area, a muted palette takes cues from the outdoors.

Climate responsiveness and sustainability are both pillars of Horizon Neighborhood, and so the architects introduced such initiatives as thermal mass concrete floors and hydronic radiant floor heating to the cabins, with lightweight steel stilts—an eye-catching solution to massive snowfall as well—serving as the primary structural frames. 

Cedar dominates both the exterior and interior of the cabin.

Cedar dominates both the exterior and interior of the cabin.

"The stilts also support cabins from the powerful winds that can occur on a mountaintop," says MacKay-Lyons. "Furthermore, in Utah’s high desert there is extreme solar gain, so we were careful to position the cabins to mitigate direct sunlight while maximizing views to the Great Salt Lake Basin." 

The ideal cabin feature: a fireplace.

The ideal cabin feature: a fireplace.

In the past, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects have worked on other projects that deftly fuse rustic structures and the landscape, like the Bigwin Island Club Cabins in Ontario’s Muskoka region and MacKay-Lyons’ own Shobac Farm in remote Nova Scotia. Horizon Neighborhood does the same, emphasizing privacy and framing expansive panoramas. 

Instead of peering into the homes of neighbors, residents revel in nature.

Instead of peering into the homes of neighbors, residents revel in nature.

Still, balance was important, and Horizon Neighborhood was designed to encourage social interactions and camaraderie. MacKay-Lyons was thrilled about unveiling architecture that "prompts community." Beyond the central Pioneer Cabin, where neighbors are invited to hang out together, cabins are clustered around courtyards that yield their own interactions. As residents make their way between units, past garages, and under bridges, they will inevitably run into another person, sparking spontaneous conversation. 

"It’s very satisfying," says MacKay-Lyons," that simple building forms can create such rich and complex ensembles."

Horizon Neighborhood cluster plan.

Horizon Neighborhood cluster plan.

Related Reading: Agrarian Pastime: Book a Village Stay in Nova Scotia

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects / @mackaylyonssweetapple

Building/General Contractor: Mountain Resort Builders 

Structural Engineer: Dynamic Structures

Civil Engineer Consulting: Talisman Civil

Interior Design: Haley Duffin and Megan Rider for Powder Mountain

Electrical Consultants: BNA Engineers