Roger Wade

The shoemaker’s children go barefoot, or so goes the proverb. And while architect Mitch Blake’s children always had a roof over their heads, it wasn’t what you might expect, given their father’s profession.

With its quirky Tudor theme (not Blake’s design) the family’s 1980s house cut a peculiar figure at the foot of Wyoming’s Teton Range. Worse, Blake says, “the quality of construction wasn’t great. We’re in a pretty severe climate, and there were just R-19 batts in the roof. We were cold most of the time.”

Blake chipped away at improvements over the years, but progress was slow. “I found I was pretty good at demolition,” he says, laughing, “but not so good at putting things back together.” The pace picked up considerably when a friend, builder/remodeler Stan Marshall, got involved.

“He said, ‘Here’s the deal: I’ll do it at my cost, but you’re going to move out of the house,” Blake says, “and you’re not going to do any of the work yourself.’” With that, Blake adds, “I started drawing fast, and then we tore into it.”

To stay within budget, Blake minimized changes to the existing structural frame, relying instead on a new suite of finish materials to transform the building’s character. “I have a passion for concrete,” says Blake, who tidied up the exterior walls with cement board panels in a layout that suggests solid masonry blocks. Corrugated Cor-ten steel roofing, which recalls old mining camp buildings, provides a contrasting color and texture. “I tried to use everything in its raw form,” Blake says. With the exception of the red cedar that punctuates the siding and trims out the steel porch columns, the exterior will be virtually maintenance-free.

Cement board panels, typically an exterior material, line much of the interior. “On walls where there’s cement board on the outside, I also used it on the inside,” says Blake, who made sure that the exterior layout pattern reads through on the interior as well. “It gives a connection between inside and out.” The material’s unfinished gray-green color “becomes very warm inside,” he adds. “It’s not austere at all.”

Project superintendent Buck Lamphiear installed the panels over a layer of plywood (for seismic resistance) and caulked the reveals with a contrasting-color sealant. Because cement board cuts cleanly, he could assemble trim-free window and door returns without the corner bead and mud required when using gypsum board. The material’s mass—along with the dense-pack insulation that fills both interior and exterior walls—contributes to the house’s deep sense of calm.

“If you keep the material palette kind of quiet, there’s a serenity that comes with it,” says Blake, whose other interior specs included bamboo flooring, charcoal gray carpet (in different patterns for public and private spaces), and concrete countertops (ground to a terrazzo-like finish in the kitchen, polished in the baths). Creating another link with the exterior finish schedule, Lamphiear’s crew used unfinished steel plate to clad the fireplace surround and to form the staircases’ risers, skirt boards, and railing stanchions.

At nearly 4,500 square feet, the original house was big enough, Blake says, “but all of the spaces inside were kind of tiny.” The architect responded with strategic plan interventions that were just enough to get the job done. Modest additions give the kitchen and breakfast room some much-needed elbow room and expand the living room’s cramped fireplace seating area. Enlarged window openings and passageways between rooms yield an equally impressive bang for the buck.

Subtly reworked second-floor partitions correct some awkwardly shaped bedrooms and free up space for a new office and exercise room. A new roofline at the south end creates volume for a guest suite and laundry.

Blake finished off the third floor with his grandchildren in mind. “There’s a theater room, two bunks, and a playroom,” he says. Large floor openings with glass-paneled guardrails maintain visual contact with the levels below. “The whole point was to open it up,” he says, “to let the house flow and breathe a little bit.”

A new green roof wraps around the home’s south end, lending balance to the building’s elevations and integrating the new breakfast room and kitchen bump-outs below. “The sod roof gives a more contemporary feel to the form,” Blake says. The roof’s zero-pitch profile keeps it from blocking second-floor windows, while its living surface actually improves the view—the meadow grass is like the grass that surrounds the property, so it all relates to what’s there.

The roof structure consists of a pan lined with an EPDM roofing membrane and a drainage mat that incorporates both filter fabric and a root barrier. Lamphiear filled the pan with a 50/50 combination of the site’s silty clay soil and perlite. “It really holds moisture well,” Blake says. The soil’s inherent insulating quality comes into play only in the small areas where it covers indoor space, but it serves well in protecting the roofing material. “It’s also a way to capture some of the runoff,” Blake adds.

During heavy rain, simple spouts at the roof’s corners neatly direct the overflow away from the building. Lamphiear installed the spouts in pairs for a reason: Water flowing from an upper spout indicates a blockage in the one below.

—Bruce D. Snider is a senior contributing editor at CUSTOM HOME and RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT, sister publications of REMODELING.