Palmer living: Gardening, golf and glaciers

One couple sets their sights on the perfect site – and makes it their own

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

For Debi and Lowell Shinn, building a new home was going to depend on three things: location, location, location. The ideal home needed to be near a golf-course, needed to have sunny, protected areas for Debi's flower and vegetable beds (Debi is a master gardener), and it needed to celebrate the rugged beauty of the Alaska landscape. "One of our main criteria was the view," says Debi.

General Contractor
Steve Miller, Wintersun Inc.
Catherine Call, Blue Sky Studio
Green Acres Landscaping
Custom cherry with slab front drawers, and shaker style doors, Jon Deel, Jon's Woodworking
Cultured stone in master bath: Alaska Marble & Granite; Granite on guest and powder vanities: Hard Rock Design; Butcherblock: Bamboo, Teragren; Slate: Vermont Slate, Sheldon Slate Products
Plumbing Fittings
Grohe, Kohler, Porcher, Bowman Mechanical
Hubbardton Forge Lighting, Y Lighting
Hardwood: Brazilian Walnut, Alaska Wholesale Hardwoods; Slate: Brazilian Rusty Slate, Alaska Marble & Granite; Cork: Swirl antique copper, Corkart, The Cronin Company; Linoleum: Marmoleum, Alaska Wholesale Flooring; Carpet: Woolshire, Alaska Wholesale Flooring
Doors & Trim
Old Growth Vertical Grain Fir, 5-Panel Doors, Spenard Builders Supply
Sub-Zero Freezer Drawers, Wolf Drawer Microwave Oven, Wolf Gas Rangetop, Sub-Zero Undercounter Wine Storage Refrigerator, Spenard Builders Supply; Dacor Warming Drawer; Miele Refrigerator, Miele Double Wall Ovens, Allen & Petersen

So when they found a piece of property in Palmer's River Bend subdivision, with a backdrop of Pioneer Peak and the Knik River Delta, and views up the valley to Knik Glacier, they knew they could stop looking for the perfect place to build.

Taming (while maintaining) the wild

The couple hired Catherine Call of Blue Sky Studio to help them create a home that would fit their tastes and fit their new lot's challenging terrain: "I think one of the most special qualities of a custom home is the opportunity to sculpt it to the site," says Catherine.

Their plan was to preserve as much of the existing landscape, natural flora, and old-growth trees as possible. "We didn't want a big lawn," says Debi. "We wanted to keep it as natural as possible." Maintaining the site's wild beauty also helped to create a natural privacy screen around the house, says Catherine.

Closer to the house, Catherine created more "manicured" areas for outdoor living and recreation. A curved, exposed concrete patio provides a sheltered spot for watching the river, barbecuing, and enjoying the hot tub. On the street side, a hand-stacked stone wall lines a winding drive. Subtly defined "outdoor rooms" function as "sun-catchers to extend our shoulder season a little bit further," says Catherine, as well as to provide a place for Debi to grow her vegetables and herbs.

The exterior materials were carefully chosen to blend in with the environment. "We wanted to use low-maintenance materials that have color and texture like stone veneers, aluminum clad fir windows, and hand-dipped cedar shingles in weathering stain," Catherine explains. "Clear finished fir posts and exposed brackets add character to the front and rear porches."

A room with a view… and another… and another…

Enjoying the great outdoors doesn't stop when you cross the Shinn's threshold.

"All of the rooms that they use most were designed to open onto the river view," explains Catherine. "They're all linked so that the rooms can connect but can be cut off as well." The kitchen and the living room share a vaulted ceiling and a view. Double pocket doors connect the great room with the office and media center. Another pocket door connects it with the master suite. "The public and private realm can be expanded and contracted depending on which doors the Shinns decide to open," says Catherine. "All the rooms look out onto the lovely view."

Classic Craftsman coziness

The home's interior is a "modern interpretation of the Craftsman style," says Catherine. The five-panel doors, slate and hardwood floors, and warm wood trim all create the perfect setting for the couple's collection of classic Stickley furniture. "I just love the warmth that the Craftsman style creates," says Debi.

Despite its traditional appeal, the home does not have the feel of a period set-piece. It feels fresh and stylish with subtle hints of modern flare. The Hubbardton Forge lighting throughout the house, for example, while hand-forged and authentic, "aren't just period knock-offs," says Catherine. "They're more stream-lined."

There's an openness and fluidity that belies the bungalow-style inspiration. "We were looking for comfortable rooms with generous sight lines and a more traditional stylistic expression," says Catherine. "Debi wanted a cottage-y, cozy feeling." But she also wanted a feeling of space and air, she says, because "we do a lot of entertaining, so we really liked the open concept."

"The issue of appropriate scale and room size is so important," says Catherine. "You don't want a house that is just big rather than nice. You can end up with so much space and not know what to do with it." She notes that none of the rooms in the Shinn house are exceptionally large, but that the flow makes them feel larger than they are. "In this house," she says, "the grandeur should come from the view."

Doorknobs and broomsticks

The Shinns had approached the project with some trepidation. But the team they assembled helped mitigate the stress that such a large-scale project often causes. "You always hear these horror stories," says Debi. "But we were so lucky." The couple extols the virtues of general contractor, Steve Miller of Wintersun Inc. "He was so good. He does such quality work," says Debi. And cabinet maker Jon Deel of Jon's Woodworking in Palmer was "just wonderful," she says. "He did a beautiful job."

As for Catherine, "She was really fantastic," says Debi. "She had so many amazing ideas. She just took over the whole project for us." In particular, Debi says, she appreciated the foresight and practicality that Catherine brought to bear on the process. "She would look at something and say, 'That looks great but can you imagine cleaning it?' "

"Before I began building other people's houses, I built my own home," explains Catherine. "So I'm always thinking about what works and what doesn't – what's wearing well and what isn't," she says.

"You have to approach a house from the inside," says Catherine. "You have to think about how it feels to the human beings that live in it. It's subtle things like – is this hand rail comfortable in the hand? How does this doorknob feel to hold? Is this tile too slippery?"

Catherine thinks of these details so her clients don't have to. And as a visitor to the Shinn home, you won't be thinking about the doorknobs either. You'll be too busy reveling in the view and basking in the home's warm and inviting ambience.