Architect David Brems couldn’t have picked a less promising site for his future home. The lone unsold parcel in a Salt Lake City subdivision, its temperamental terrain plummeted 150 feet from roadside to ravine, daunted every buyer who dared consider it. Every buyer, that is, except David.
“I’m always tempted by a challenge,” admits the principal at Gillies Stransky Brems Smith. “I had been thinking about that piece of property for a long time, and I could get it at a pretty good price.”
After purchasing the parcel in 1992, David and his wife, Johna Devey Brems, spent the next seven years trying to figure out how to squeeze a home onto its narrow swathe of buildable land. “When you have properties that require unique solutions, it often results in a design that you wouldn’t normally do,” says David.
In this case, that meant designing a house that sits at an angle to the road and stretches nearly 100 feet from end to end, but rarely exceeds 20 feet in width. The narrow proportions allow light to enter most rooms from several directions while maximizing cross ventilation and bucolic views of the surrounding canyon.
A bridge crosses the swale between the driveway and the front door, depositing visitors in an entry hall dominated by a sun-drenched staircase. The atrium-like space links the public areas on this level with the bedrooms below. The smart design also helps make the lower level feel less like a basement.
The upper floor forsakes formality for the unfettered airiness of a loft-style layout. The family room, kitchen, dining room, and music room flow uninterrupted except for a trio of sliding glass doors that can close off the music room when the children are practicing their instruments, or if Mom or Dad want to work.
The house has no formal living room. “It’s not our lifestyle,” explains Johna, a freelance writer. When she and David entertain, it usually involves cooking, so the couple lavished most of their attention on the kitchen. The sleek and efficient space features a stainless-steel island surrounded by white laminate cabinets topped with milky Carrera marble—a material Johna grew to love during visits to Italy.
“I do a lot of baking and I just dump everything out onto the marble,” she says. And what if a guest should accidentally leave a lemon wedge on the notoriously finicky surface? “You know, it’s all part of life,” Johna shrugs. “You’re glad that friends want to come and visit and celebrate in your house.”
Guests can congregate around the breakfast bar or at the dining table, where Droog Design’s aptly named 85 Lamps chandelier (selected by lighting designer Walter Cowie) hangs over an etched-glass table. In temperate weather diners adjourn to the neighboring deck, where a cedar sunscreen offers both shade and ventilation and a warm contrast to the home’s masonry exterior.
“We wanted a house that was as low-maintenance as possible,” says David, who sheathed the 3,200-square-foot structure in honed concrete block tinted a warm shade of gray. The homeowner was drawn to the material’s durability as well as its cost, which he claims is about 25 percent less than synthetic stucco. The block is repeated on the fireplaces inside, dissolving distinctions between exterior and interior. The home’s steel framework (a precaution against earthquakes) was also left exposed, providing a muscular counterpoint to generous aluminum-framed storefront windows.
Since sustainable design is a hallmark of his firm, David tried to incorporate green elements wherever possible. The home’s concrete floors are equipped with radiant heat, but absorb so much sunlight during the winter that the Bremses seldom need to turn it on. In summer, aluminum awnings on the south side of the house help shield the interior from the sun while reflecting light into the clerestory windows above, illuminating the rooms inside. When temperatures soar, an evaporative cooler sends chilled water through the tubes in the floor, cooling the interior without the need for harmful refrigerants.
David and his contractor, Mike Allred, tried to preserve as much of the indigenous landscape as possible, wriggling the house between stands of scrub oak, chokeberry, and big-tooth maple. The sole patch of lawn is planted with buffalo grass, which needs watering only once a week. While buffalo themselves have never made an appearance, the Bremses have spied deer, elk, and coyotes on their property, and on several occasions woke to find a moose staring at them through the bedroom window. A little startling, perhaps, but no big deal for a couple that enjoys a challenge.
Fred Albert writes about architecture and interiors for regional and national publications, including Home, Art & Antiques, and Coastal Living. Architect/Interior design Gillies Stransky Brems Smith Builder Michael Allred Construction Fred Albert writes about architecture and interiors for regional and national publications, including Home, Art & Antiques, and Coastal Living. Architect/Interior design Gillies Stransky Brems Smith Builder Michael Allred Construction.