Our old cottage had been gone for two years. We had this beautiful piece of lake-front property we weren’t using. My husband and I had interviewed four major Michigan architects over a two year period, and even paid for a set of preliminary drawings which we later rejected. The style of their work was too angular, too symmetrical, or too cute for our taste. At the time, we didn’t know what we wanted, but our guts told us none of their styles fit us. Dealing with an opinionated couple like us was going to be a formidable task for any architect. The pressure was on.
We were on vacation in Bariloche, a ski resort in southwestern Argentina surrounding a lake in the foothills to the Andes. The view was stunning, with mountain peaks hiding in the clouds and the sides slipping down to this clear blue lake uncluttered by cottages, unlike our Michigan waterways. We drove by a multi-level log and stone restaurant built into the side of a mountain.
“Stop the car,” my husband said. We got out and walked around the building, marveled at the inventive log work, peeked inside the windows, and stood back and admired the textures and turns of the roof. Whoever had designed this structure understood how to use natural materials in a way that produced a building that belonged in that landscape. “I like this,” he said.
The owner came out to see why we were peeking in his windows, and strolling around his lawn. He invited us inside to look around once he learned we were enchanted by his building.
“Do you want to meet the architect?” the owner asked in Spanish. “He lives in town.”
“Has he done other work in the area we could see?” my husband asked.
“Fernando worked on Yau Yau, a large resort just up the road.”
“We’re going there for lunch,” my husband said. “How easy is this architect to work with?”
“You’ll like Fernando. He has integrity,” the man said.
My husband’s Spanish is fluent, mine is not. We had a cozy lunch at the resort that recently hosted international leaders for an environmental conference. Three hours later we were seated in the conference room of Fernando Galendez and Associates looking at framed photos of commercial and residential buildings he had done lining the walls, and his complete portfolio of work. A half hour was all it took for us to make the deal with him to design a home to fit our vacant lot at the other end of the world.
Fernando promised preliminary sketches which arrived two weeks later, as promised. His drawings of our new cottage were wonderful, but when we paced the building off on our lot, it wouldn’t fit without removing one of our favorite trees. So, my husband invited him to Michigan to see the building site.
For nine days he stayed with us, cooked with us, walked the dog with us, went to concerts and entertained with us. He visited the site in the morning, the afternoon and the evening. After dinner he made stacks of drawings of his vision on our dining room table while listening to Mozart. This man clearly loved his work. Before he left Michigan he knew what we wanted.
“You need solitude,” he told me. “For you I’ll build an island.” Working drawings arrived two months later.
We asked for lots of natural light, and a view of the lake from every room. He gave us so many windows that in the morning when we sit up in bed we have to decide whether to rake maple leaves first or brush our teeth. Strategically placed overhanging eaves on the outside invite the warm winter sun inside and block the scorch in summer.
We told him we wanted to go to sleep watching stars and the moon’s reflection on the water, awake to the sun exploding over the horizon, and then drop our gaze to see the blue heron eating minnows under the weeping willow tree. We asked for windows that opened so we could feel the cool summer breeze as we slept, and air conditioning to keep us comfortable when temperatures soared. We wanted the house designed so we could live on one floor when we were too old to climb the stairs. Fernando delivered. The stars and the moon are all in the right places, and the blue heron shows up most mornings for breakfast.
When he came back during construction to check on the progress, it was time to choose light fixtures and flooring. We went shopping at our local home center. He had me choose three or four fixtures I liked, before he selected the one we should use, always explaining why the design would or wouldn’t work. It took him two minutes to choose a porcelain tile for the kitchen and bathroom floors I had spent months researching: a color that would age gracefully, and compliment our wood. The color had to be the same shade as our soil, so we wouldn’t notice when our dog left paw prints on the floor.
Were there problems during construction? Sure. He responded immediately to our E-mails with drawings. We worked them out together.
Fernando located all four fireplaces against interior walls to make room for more windows. The lake room fireplace was designed large enough to take a four foot log, like the gigantic hearths we’d enjoyed in British pubs.
We asked for nature-based colors, rounded surfaces and materials that looked like they moved. He balanced wood, rock, stone and soft creamy whites inside with our classic furniture and antique rugs…a yin and yang effect. Outside he anchored the cottage to the landscape with a stone foundation and nestled the building between existing trees.
“No blinds,” Fernando said when I asked about window treatments. “Too mechanical. Use drapery or curtains for a softer effect.”
On our first view of our completed stone fireplace, we were overwhelmed with the visual weight of the stones. Fernando must have heard us gasp, because he said, “Not to worry. I will fix.” He walked to a pile of split logs the workers had rejected because of excessive knots and branch stubs poking this way and that. He had the men hold the log in front of the wall of stone. My husband and I both smiled. It was perfect. That log broke up the stone just enough to put it in proportion to the room. It’s now our mantel.
We asked for open, comfortable, clutter-free spaces where we would have room to breathe. He gave us a large, one level, first floor L-shaped room broken into three intimate spaces with ceiling treatments. Fernando has a passion for designing to human scale. On the second level he made high-ceiling rooms comfortable by bringing wood stained the same as the roof deck down the walls to meet plasterboard eight feet up from the floor. It worked. Our grandchildren and friends report they feel cozy.
“A gothic cathedral makes a person feel small and insignificant and far away from heaven,” he told me. “Your house will fit you both.”
We asked for a high performance kitchen where our friends could help us cook. He gave us a centrally located, sunlit workspace designed with maximum counter space, and a minimum number of appliance fronts to visually clutter the cabinets. Cupboards and drawers opened with pulls made from Lake Superior stones. Our architect planned five distinct food preparation work stations for vegetables, meats, baking, a cooking island and a bar for mixing drinks. Cookware storage inside a large hood that vents the cooker, mirrors a thick wooden shelf with hanging glassware storage over the bar.
Fernando gave us a shelter with visual warmth, insulated with rigid foam on top the roof deck to provide maximum energy efficiency and physical well being. He gave us under floor heating to keep our feet warm. He designed a smart home, with low voltage halogen lighting, set-back thermostats, a security system with fire, and water alarms, wiring for computer and cable T.V. and jacks for data transmission. People flow harmoniously from room to room, with minimal space-wasting hallways and staircases wide enough to move furniture up and down. Exposed beams and roof decking overhead create texture and complexity for visual recreation.
We asked Fernando for a quiet, environment to enjoy coffee early on a Michigan morning, and a peaceful place to sip cocktails and be calmed by the lake in the evening. He gave us second floor sunrise and sunset balconies made of white pine, Michigan’s state tree. He gave us a custom home that fit our personalities. He even designed an outdoor dog shower for our best friend.
Our home is solid. It’s just what we wanted, and it’s built to last a while. We found the right architect.