Magic mountain: One couple's love letter to Denali

A phoenix rises up from the ashes

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Kevin G. Smith Photography

The life of professional dog-mushers in rural Alaska is the stuff that dreams are made of. It conjures up the romantic iconography of a cozy log cabin, antlers over a fireplace, vintage snowshoes, and wooden sleds. So the Big Lake home where Martin Buser and his wife Kathy Chapoton live, work and raise champion sled-dogs comes as a magical, minimalist surprise.

General contractor
Martin Buser
mayer sattler-smith
Interior designer
mayer sattler-smith
Kitchen island lights
Greenlight Concepts
Custom polished concrete floors
Rumford Fireplaces
Courtyard & water feature
mayer sattler-smith
Kitchen cabinets
Birch plywood by Alaska Pinecraft
Kitchen counter & island
Custom concrete
Kitchen backsplash
Valspar chalkboard paint
Kitchen appliances & range hood
Bathroom counters
Bathroom tile
Hakatai glass tiles
Bathroom tub
Kohler "Tea for Two" tub
Bathroom faucet
Door hardware
Wood windows
Summit Windows & Doors
House vacuum system

"I wanted a modern-day log cabin," says Kathy. The lean, geometric structure rises phoenix-like from an elevated knoll that was once charred and scarred in the Big Lake wild fires of 1996.

Point of view meets view

Running a kennel of more than 100 dogs and supporting Martin's 29 Iditarod finishes (with 4 wins), the couple has an extraordinary relationship to the Alaska landscape. The house would have to be something special – it would have to marry the home to the land and capture the beautiful and forbidding views that surround it.

Martin called in Klaus Mayer and Petra Sattler-Smith of mayer sattler-smith to help. "I knew I could build the house," Martin says. "But I couldn't design it." In the early 80s, Martin saw an article about an Eagle River house built by Klaus. "It was small and had multi-use spaces, and was so well incorporated into the hillside," recalls Martin. "I said at the time, 'If we ever build a house, I want him to design it.'"

The architects spent nights on the property, camping and getting a feel for the land. "We wanted to experience the site at different times of the day," says Klaus.

"The views were incredible," says Petra. "You could see Susitna, Chugach, McKinley. One of the earliest decisions was very clear: We knew we wanted to make Denali a real focus."

"To some degree," says Klaus, "it was more important to frame the landscape from inside the house." The home is a gateway to the outdoors, he explains. "The architecture takes a step back."

Connecting with the natural order – both inside and out

To keep the focus on the outdoor views, the couple kept the interior materials simple and natural. They used a limited variety of materials – wood, glass and concrete – and repeated them throughout the home both inside and out. "The same siding, the same lighting, the same dark exterior wood – these elements have a real continuity inside and out," says Kathy. It's an aesthetic strategy that makes the home feel cohesive and integral to the landscape.

"I think the feel of the house is due to the Alaskan yellow cedar," says Petra. "It was a really important decision that helped create that feeling of coziness and warmth."

The results are more than just beautiful, says Kathy. They're emotional. "It feels so peaceful," she says. "There's such a disconnect in the world between people and the natural order. People could find a lot of peace in spending more time in nature – in just looking and watching."

Fighting fire with fire

From the outside, the house subtly situates itself naturally into its surroundings. "We tried to work into the hill," says Klaus. From the car-park, you climb a flight of exterior stairs to a porch that turns your focus to Mt. McKinley, he explains. And from the formal entry, you go up more steps into the main level. That sense of climbing the hill is "so important," he says. "And the topography really allowed us to play with that."

The blackened wood exterior siding is low maintenance and references the history of the earth it sits on – the 1996 wildfires. "Some of the lumber came out of the fire," says Martin. "We logged off the burnt spruce that was here, and milled it into 1 by 8s," he says.

The unique, charred exterior siding was selected, in part, because of the way it fits into the landscape. "We didn't want anything ostentatious," says Martin. "The more the vegetation is growing back, the more the building disappears," he says.

The wood was hand-torched piece by piece. "We came to that on our own accord," Martin says. But during the "trial and error" process, they learned that this technique was a long-standing traditional Japanese method of preserving wood. "What we 'invented' was nothing new at all," he says. But it provides a good metaphor for the home: tradition meeting innovation.

The heart of the home

Inside, all roads lead to the most important room in the house, jokes Martin. The house is basically three rectangles, he explains. "And all three rectangles meet in the kitchen."

"We love to have gatherings," says Kathy, who loves to cook. "So the kitchen needed to be an integral part of the house." It features high overhead cabinets to create a sense of space, and 9-foot counters with no interruptions. "Three or four people can be there at once, prepping food," she says. "It feels so spacious," she says. "It's an incredibly comfortable and functional kitchen."

The 'just what we need' approach

Scale was a prominent issue during the design stage, says Klaus. "They were interested in the 'not-so-big house.' " With their kids grown and their business separately housed, Martin and Kathy wanted to downsize the house as much as possible. "They said, 'What can you do with less square footage? How can you make it more functional?' " Klaus explains. "They said, 'Give us just what we need.' We really like that approach."

The design maximizes the square footage into the main space, says Petra, while being lean and economical in the more private areas like the bedrooms. "They have a really lively kind of lifestyle and we wanted that to be reflected in the layout."

The 'Wow' terrace

With streamlined interior spaces, the design of the outdoor spaces took a leading role. An exterior entry courtyard with a reflecting pool, a fireplace, and a single tree acts as a "border to nature, to the wild surroundings," says Petra. It also serves as a place where people can gather – effectively enlarging the home when needed.

The roof terrace adds even more public space to the home. "It's spectacular to be another 10 feet above the main living area," says Petra.

It's Martin's favorite spot. "The 360-degree views are really amplified up there," he says. "It's about as spectacular as it gets. Most of the people who go up there use the same three-letter-word: 'Wow.' Everyone says it. It's the 'wow' terrace."

A 'true collaboration'

Like the green growth that is slowly reclaiming the land destroyed by fire, building the house was an "evolutionary process," says Martin. The couple had the luxury of time and they used it to make careful and thoughtful choices – to decide when to make compromises and when not to.

"We started the project in 2004 and in 2010 the couple moved in," says Petra. "It's been so nice to have a relationship over the years. We believe the architect is just a part of the team. The owner and the builder all have to come together to make a great project," she says. Indeed, Martin and Kathy's home is the culmination of thoughtful design, skillful execution, and the genuine love of the people who live in it.