Hefferlin + Kronenberg Architects, based in Chattanooga, have recently completed a private residence on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. Their Cumberland House is a picture-book frontier dream: solid, essential and safe, secluded and with all mod cons. It is also very close to a Cherokee sacred site – invasion or symbiosis? Sophie Lovell speaks to the architect Heidi Hefferlin.
How isolated is your client’s plot in this region of the Appalachian Mountains?
The house is very isolated which is one of the reasons this property was desirable to the homeowners who were looking for a retreat removed from urban life. However, there are other houses within half a mile or so but we specifically located the house such that no other houses are visible from it and it is not visible to any other homes. The other houses are separated by the terrain and vegetation from this house.
With a house such as this there is something almost intimate about the relationship between architect and client – you are after all charged with turning a very personal and deeply felt dream into three-dimensional reality – how was the process and relationship with the client for this project? Was it a smooth or a rocky path?
It was a wonderful project and process. The clients gave me free reign to design a house that fits the site. They did not come to me with any preconceived notions of style. I have known them for years and have great respect for their personal design taste. We met at the site regularly to review progress and share thoughts. They participated in house location and in the finalisation of details such as stain colours, large stone selection, steel paint colour and furniture and window covering selections.
You describe this as a “traditional dogtrot plan” – explain what a dogtrot house is and why this form was chosen here?
The dogtrot plan divides the plan into two buildings that are connected by a roof, which is the dogtrot. The dogtrot space, is typically located in the centre of the plan, it is a transitional space, which is neither indoors nor outdoors, and is shaded from the sun by a connecting roof. It is a great place to hang out and was a favourite of the family dog (hence the name, dogtrot). This housing type became popular in the south because these spaces were cooler and became a way to draw cool air into the house. Historically they originated from connecting log cabins together with a roofed outdoor area. For this project the dogtrot connects the garage to the house creating a portal for the view and a place to sit in the shade on the south side of the house in the summer. In the winter the area is warmed by the sun in the morning and is protected by the wind from the bluff.
Tell me about the choice of materials – how did you arrive at the massive stone walls as against timber, for example?
The house is located on the Cumberland Plateau and specifically on the bluff that overlooks the Sequatchie valley. The bluff is composed of rock faces that are magnificent and very rugged. I designed the house using the stone from the site to ground the house in the place and to make it seem as if it was rising out of it.
There is an incredible sense of frontier romance about this house. It conjures up associations with Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, or Henry Thoreau’s Walden. Is this the kind of atmosphere you were aiming for?
Absolutely. A connection with nature and the wildness of the site was a goal from the beginning. The design intentionally strives to integrate modern conveniences with nature. For instance the house is built using a steel frame and the roof is steel decking, which mimics the sky. We have used the stone to clad the modern frame. The house blends in with the site, but in a modern way.
This house has apparent simplicity yet is also an appealing incarnation of luxury – do you see a discrepancy in that? Was it a very expensive house to build and fit out?
The house was more expensive than your normal suburban home but not outrageously so. Tennessee is blessed with a large talent pool of craftsmen.The construction was managed and implemented by a master craftsman who works on site along with his workers, much like Frank Lloyd Wright approached the construction of his homes. A local grading contractor prepared the site and built the rock pool. He works only on the mountain and with his family. The rock was harvested from the site, which made the rock work affordable and did not require transportation fees. The steel, cabinets, doors and flooring were fabricated locally. Simplicity was a goal of the homeowner and is increasingly so to me. We all deal with so much stuff in our lives. If you can pare your environment down to the bare essentials, you spend less time cleaning and maintaining and you have more time to enjoy your family, nature and life.
To the outside viewer, there is one glaring contradiction here: a frontier-style building celebrating some very American pioneer values – standing on (one could say “invading”) a sacred Cherokee site. Does that not make you, or the owners, a little uncomfortable?
From the beginning we all felt a responsibility to the sacred nature of the site. Prior to my client’s purchase of the land the site was used by locals for beer parties and camping. The house is located 40 metres away from the “the hole in the rock” sacred site. It sits back from the bluff and is not visible from the valley below. If we had located the house on the bluff, the view would have been even more spectacular, however, we all felt that was sacred ground and should be left natural. Nothing has been done to the Cherokee site. You can walk to it from the house and sit in the hole with the view of the valley below. This place is, and will remain, unchanged and preserved and held in very high regard. In short, I don’t feel uncomfortable with our site location, I feel that we have done the sacred site a great service by protecting it with a client who will respect it.
– Interview by Sophie Lovell