Girdwood living

One couple’s mountain retreat becomes a friend and family magnet

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna

After decades of living in Fairbanks, Mike and Robin Smith decided they were ready for a new home and a new lifestyle. Their kids were grown-up, Mike had sold his business, Robin had begun a new career. As for Fairbanks, “It was time to leave,” says Robin. “We had been down every single road so many times.”

General contractor
Turnagain Design & Build, Kevin McDermott; and owner, Michael Smith
Linwood Custom Homes
Flooring (hardwood, tile, carpet)
Super Floors of Alaska, LLC
Diamond-Fyre gas fireplace, North Country Stoves, Inc.
Entry way tile & insert
Portofino classico and compass rose, custom design by owner in travertine and glass tile
Kitchen cabinets
DeWils shaker door style in natural cherry with custom-glass inserts, Spenard Builders Supply
Kitchen island
DeWils shaker style in espresso stained ash, Spenard Builders Supply
Kitchen countertops
Sensa Granite Santa Cecilia, Alaska Countertops, Inc.
Kitchen appliances
Stainless GE Café range, dishwasher, GE Profile counter-depth refrigerator, Whirlpool compactor, Spenard Builders Supply
Kitchen flooring
Longhua Bamboo carbonized woven strand, Super Floors of Alaska, LLC
Bathroom cabinets
DeWils shaker style
in natural cherry,
Spenard Builders Supply
Master bath countertop
Cranbrook quartz
solid surface,
Alaska Countertops, Inc.
Master bath tile (floor & shower)
Seville Anthracite mosaic accents, Super Floors of Alaska, LLC
Exterior beams
Custom douglas fir
sourced by Linwood Custom Homes in B.C.
Milgard Montecito vinyl
Therma-Tru Mission 3-panel, fire resistant
Metal channel,
Spenard Builders Supply

Of course, after years of frigid northern living, they were anxious to move south where the weather is “warm” year-round. And to Fairbanksians, that means the charming ski-resort town of Girdwood. “It’s like moving to the tropics,” says Mike, who appreciates that despite the annual eight feet of snow, his new hometown doesn’t experience “extreme winters.” Well, he’s only half-joking.

Scenery, civility and slopes

Girdwood met some other crucial criteria as well.

For starters, it’s an easy and enjoyable commute for Robin. “Turnagain Arm never looks the same way twice,” she says. “Driving home is my time to decompress.” Second, Girdwoodians enjoy excellent amenities like world-class dining (and some good pizza to boot). And Girdwood is known for its vibrant, active and involved community.

But, we all know its greatest feature: the slopes. For the Smiths, who have been skiing their whole lives, winter sports are more than a pastime; skiing means family. “That was the real incentive,” says Mike. “To build a place where our kids will want to come and visit.”

“And they have,” says Robin.

Last winter was “wall-to-wall boys,” says Robin, of a late-winter visit from her niece, her niece’s son, and an assortment of friends. “The fireplaces were all going and there was gear everywhere,” says Mike with obvious satisfaction. “And they ate everything in sight.”

The couple’s grown son and daughter (who brings her own family) are frequent visitors as well.

Barrier-free living

You have to be thoughtful when building a mountain ski-retreat that will be a magnet for friends, family and drop-ins. The couple chose their home design through Linwood Homes, selecting the Lancaster floor-plan, and set about making it perfect for their new roles of part-time inn-keepers.

The main floor is open and airy – a departure from the home’s original design. “We modified the Lancaster home plan quite a bit actually,” says Robin. They did away with the corridor and exposed stairway that divided the dining and living areas. “The open kitchen-dining-living room floor plan was a major interior change,” says Robin. “We wanted a barrier-free arrangement.”

The couple loves the first-floor master suite (“we’re preparing for our dotage,” jokes Robin). It creates the perfect amount of connectivity and privacy for when they’re hosting a crowd.

A spacious, functional kitchen was also a big priority for the couple. “I do a lot of the cooking,” says Mike. “I love making breakfast for all the kids during snow season,” he says. “I’ll just make a huge spread and then send them out snowboarding all day.”

Upstairs are the guest quarters – two big bedrooms with mountain views and a full bath joined by an open, loft-like corridor that opens out onto the living room below.

For the Smiths, customizing an existing floor-plan made practical and financial sense. “This service is included in the total cost of the home package,” Robin explains. “Stan Powers and all the other Linwood Homes' technical and sales staff were invaluable in helping us make our home perfect.” In addition to the design changes, Stan helped the couple source some of the interior’s high-end features like the windows, the custom Douglas fir solid timber exterior posts and beams, as well as the exterior doors with custom windows and the solid hemlock interior pane doors.

Local talent

Due to the nature of Girdwood’s milder, yet wetter winters, the couple relied on the expertise of Kevin McDermott and the team at Turnagain Design & Build to help them in their home’s construction. “They did a phenomenal job,” says Robin. “Because they all live and work in Girdwood, they know the issues surrounding the snowloads, the wet environment and building with wood,” she adds.

“The thing about Girdwood is that it’s not the snowiest, wettest, darkest or coldest; it’s a combination of all those things,” says Kevin. “If you don’t plan for it, you’ll regret it later.”

One of the couple’s favorite “planned-for” features is the wrap-around covered porch. It’s a “must have,” says Mike. “No more shoveling snow off the deck.” The porch also extends the home’s living space. “It can be pouring rain and we can still sit outside and enjoy it,” adds Robin.

Kevin also guided the couple’s choice in the home’s exterior stain. “As wet as it is, we still get quite a bit of sun,” explains Kevin. “Clear stains can get washed out and only give you three or four years of protection.” He suggested a semi-transparent stain on the timbers. “It provides some pigment and is much more durable,” he says. “You can still see the wood grain but it protects against UV damage.”

Her vision, his tools

The couple added their own expertise to the project elevating the home’s qualities with their efforts. “I have expensive taste that we can’t afford,” says Robin with a laugh. “So we do a lot of the work ourselves.”

“She’s the visionary,” says Mike, with what turns out to be undue modesty. “But I have the tools.”

The Smiths' DIY efforts were not limited to a little paint or a few crafty projects. Mike made the 6” hemlock baseboard trim and the 3” lintel-style door frame trim, as well as some of the stunning furniture. For example, a built-in banquette in the dining area allows them to feed a crowd with a minimum amount of space.

But the star of the room is the etched stainless-steel dining table that Mike hand-made using his years of experience doing steel-work as an aviation mechanic. “There’s so much wood in the kitchen,” says Robin, “that we wanted something with a different feel.” It’s a delightful and surprising piece – earthy, proportional, yet a bit edgy. It’s more than a table – it’s a work of art.

Every year, people make the hard choice between visiting family and taking a well-earned vacation. The Smith family, for whom going “home” means heading to a retreat with cozy, mountain-view bedrooms, blazing fires, enormous breakfasts and Alyeska in the background, will never have to make that choice again.