Case Study: House at 9,000 Feet by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple

Aerodynamics don’t often figure into the design of single-family homes, but it was top of mind for House at 9,000 Feet, whose location experiences some of the strongest winds in the U.S. The home’s eye-catching shape doesn’t just deflect wind, however; its compressed oval form also grew from the site’s 26-foot height restrictions and the wishes of the clients, who asked for something sculptural yet modest. “One of the client couple wanted it to make a statement; the other person wanted it to fit in,” says Brian MacKay-Lyons, FRAIC, Hon. FAIA. While the form says design with a capital D, the use of red cedar on both the exterior and interior recalls the humble barns in the valley below. 

From the road you can see right over the roof. And what a view it is, of tilting mountainous terrain dotted with pointy evergreens and layer upon layer of distant peaks and valleys. Alighting on the side of the steep mountain and reached by a bar-grate driveway ramp, the house’s curved underbelly rests lightly on a splayed concrete cube and four steel posts. 

The concrete acts as a shear wall, and the stilts were a way to deal not only with the precipitous downslope but with the region’s snowfall, as much as 40 feet annually. “It’s a flying building rather than a floating building, because getting concrete on top of the mountain is very difficult and expensive,” Brian says. “The idea was to touch the land lightly and not have any more concrete than absolutely necessary.”

Within the rectilinear streetside volume, the garage opens to a small mudroom, where a skylit metal-grate stairway drops down to the main living level—the big cedar-clad tube—and to two lower bedroom levels in the concrete cube. The ground floor is set up for skiing in and out, and a fifth level housing an underground gym is currently being built beneath the bedrooms. 

One hundred feet long, the home epitomizes the firm’s eye for the exquisitely plain as well as their curatorial approach to panoramic views. The floor plan was arranged for one-level living when the couple is there by themselves: a central gathering space for cooking, dining, and living is flanked by the primary bedroom and a media room at the eastern end of the extruded tube, and a screened porch on the western end. 

On the long south side facing the valley, Brian designed a clamshell-like opening inset with a glass wall for passive heating, and a continuous window seat that compresses the view for dramatic effect. The bench seat creates a “Pac Man–shaped volume you sit in, which squishes the view,” he says. “The 5-foot-tall window slot is one big smile that wraps around three sides of the project, from the sunset deck to the primary bedroom on the east.” 

Outside, the clamshell’s soffit shades the seat, preventing the interior from overheating during the summer and mitigating glare from the winter sun reflecting off the snow. “That’s where the clients hang out and watch the weather go around the building,” Brian says.

As if the house emerged fully formed, the exterior and interior contours are identical, their respective curves clad in velvety, color-matched cedar. “One hundred percent of the space inside is the form on the outside,” Brian says, summing up the design. 

Wood Work

Many of MLS’s houses are wood-centric, and here too the soul of the interior comes from the architectural fit-out of ash and cedar. What to use where was based on the wood’s wearability: clear red cedar, a soft wood, for walls and ceilings; durable, blond clear white ash for areas that take a beating, such as floors, cupboards, countertops, furniture, and built-in seating, including the foyer’s boot bench. 

The architects selected all the furniture and designed the rugs. “The interior isn’t cluttered with stuff from the home show,” Brian says. Rather, “it’s like a helmet you’re inside of, a landscape-viewing instrument.” Pressed against the north wall, the galley kitchen has a 24-foot-long island encased in soapstone, which acts as a fireplace surround or “totem” facing the great room. 

Salt Lake City builder Brigham Wilcox assembled a “crackerjack crew” of carpenters who could build the radiused ceiling and dedicate months to the finish work at this remote site. Rather than “fetishizing craft,” in Brian’s words, the design’s details are mostly deployed to hide things away. “The lines of the curved ceiling are pretty unforgiving; there are mirror-image channels for the lights and HVAC venting, and the grooves had to hit at the same spot on both sides—one 8 feet off the center line to the right, and one 8 feet off the center line to the left,” Brigham says. “The finish carpentry had to be extremely symmetrical, so the layout matched across the ellipse.”

Outside, 2-by-6 small-knot cedar wraps the entire circumference of the house, which was framed with radiused steel. The cedar boards were fastened atop a galvanized channel exoskeleton and white PVC waterproofing membrane, and finished with a galvanized-steel knife edge. “It became sculpture, not just structure,” Brigham says.

It is sculpture, yes, but also a vividly lived experience—everything is calculated to express the connection to the vast landscape. That quality is reinforced with the building’s curved belly—a manifestation of Brian’s visceral appreciation for inhabiting the underside of buildings on stilts. “I grew up playing in shavings under wooden boats in construction in shipyards,” he says. “If you have to build up high, you may as well make a thing out of that space between the land and building, where you don’t see any sky. It’s my favorite place in a lot of our projects. This curve shape is a lot like one of those boat hulls I might have known as a child. It’s about an archetypal experience more than about a shape or a look.”

Indeed, this viewfinder of a home is swept up in its setting. The convergence of materials and geometries creates a cocoon-like abode that nevertheless invites the outdoors in, and vice versa through the built-in ski ramp. Like many MLS projects, its carefully considered moves place House at 9,000 Feet lightly on the land, but also in direct communication within nature—an ideal stance for any vacation getaway.

House at 9,000 Feet

Intermountain West

Project Credits

Architect: Brian MacKay-Lyons, principal in charge; Matthew Bishop, project architect; Izak Bridgman, Alastair Bird, Isaac Fresia, Ben Fuglevand, Sawa Rostkowska, Diana Carl, Jesse Martyn, Lucas McDowell, Jennifer Esposito, project team, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Builder: Brigham Wilcox, Edge Builders, Salt Lake City, Utah

Interior designer: MacKay-Lyons Architects

Structural engineer: Blackwell Structural Engineers, Halifax, Ontario

Mechanical engineer: Harris-Dudley Co., South Salt Lake, Utah

Electrical engineer: BNA Consulting, West Valley City, Utah

Civil engineer: Talisman Civil Consultants, Salt Lake City, Utah

Geotech services: Intermountain GeoEnvironmental Services, South Salt Lake, Utah

Project size: 5,500 square feet

Site size: 4.3 acres

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Nic Lehoux

Key Products

Accessories: Quadro, Boffi

Appliances: Bosch, Whirlpool

Cabinetry: White ash, plain sliced and book matched

Ceiling: 1-by-2 Western red cedar shiplap, clear vertical grain

Countertops: Cambria Kenmere, clear ash butcher block, black soapstone

Doors: Loewen

Energy: Tesla Powerwall, hydronic in-floor radiant heat

Fireplace: Stuv wood-burning insert

Fixtures: Quadro, Blanco, Catalano, Boffi, Kohler

Flooring: Kahrs Ash Gottenburg

Furniture: PP Mobler, Cassina, Skagerak, Carl Hansen, Terassi, Walter Knoll

Garage doors: Northwest Door

Hardware: Emtek, SOSS, Richelieu, Blum

Lighting: Marset, Artemide, ALW, Lightheaded Lighting, Q-Tran LED, RAB Lighting

Paint: Benjamin Moore, Navajo White

Skylight: Aladdin

Steam shower: Mr. Steam

Tile: 1-by-2 colored glass tile

Window shades: Lutron

Windows: Loewen timber curtain wall