Northern Michigan Building: Aging in Grace on Elk Lake

Northern Michigan Building: A young architect designs a home on Elk Lake that her parents can grow old in comfortably — and with style.

The slip of land between Elk Lake and Lake Skegemog is special, even by Up North standards. Its two miles of thick woods and clear blue water, perfectly private yet conveniently located, are what drew Bob and Jan Kerlin to buy a rundown cottage about halfway up Skegemog Point 14 years ago. Moving from an East Bay home after their son and three daughters were grown, the couple wanted a peaceful, rustic home where they could stay permanently. The little, pink 1950’s cottage hardly fit the bill, but the garage was solid, and it became the starting point for the design of a beautiful and accommodating home.

Getting everything just right was important—and also easy. The Kerlins’ daughter, Kelly Kerlin-Ropposch, is an architect and owner of Archkinetiks in Traverse City. Kelly designs a lot of commercial buildings and thoroughly understands access needs. She applied that knowledge to the design of her parents’ home. Unexpected life changes can have a devastating effect on seniors living in conventional homes, so Kelly encourages all her residential clients to consider their lifestyle 20 to 30 years later into the future and plan for features to fit possible needs.

Kelly’s design focused on making life easier for her aging parents. High-contrast, eye-level switch-plate covers make navigation easier for the couple, who both have compromised vision. The open layout (except the guest loft) is barrier-free, accommodating wheelchairs and walkers with wide passageways and flat surfaces. Even the slate-tiled master shower has a roll-in entrance and hefty log beams to accommodate a wheelchair hoist, should it be needed someday.

The plan centers on a large living room open to the kitchen and a dining area that connects to a glassed-in room with a view of the lake that Kelly calls the lakeview nook. The master suite with laundry is situated near the detached garage-turned-barn, with plans to connect it via a breezeway with a therapy pool to ease Jan’s early-morning stiffness. At the other end is a suite that houses Bob’s office and a bathroom and that can easily be converted to private quarters for a live-in nurse.

Accommodating her parents’ physical disadvantages wasn’t Kelly’s only design challenge. Preserving the existing garage, maximizing water views, saving many trees and creating accessible storage without a basement lengthened the list of spatial requirements, all of which Kelly fulfilled.

With the structure in place, aesthetic decisions came more easily. Jan had always wanted a log home, but Kelly steered her parents away from the high maintenance associated with log homes toward a framed house with a rustic interior using whole logs as support structures. The cabin-y interior makes heavy use of different species of wood—inspired by the winding approach to the home through hemlocks, cedars, firs and pines. Walls of clear-grained Douglas fir paneled in cedar rise from reclaimed redwood floors, with red pine doors and rough-hewn trim. Kelly faced interior gables with dark-stained Western red cedar shake, an effect that gives balanced scale and contrast to the high ceiling peaks. It also bridges the interior and exterior, a technique Kelly calls “turning the house inside-out(side).”

The practical benefits of the house, of course, give Bob and Jan a sense of peace and permanence. But what really matters to Jan are the simple pleasures: gathering all 18 family members for dinner, watching deer from the lakeview nook and feeling the contentment that comes from living in a well-designed space in the perfect place, forever.