Imagine acre after acre of grass-covered hills undulating through a panoramic setting that stretches as far as the eye can see. Now add a low-sitting structure nestled into the side of one of the hillsides, a barely visible dot on the distant landscape. Is it a modern sculpture or a residential retreat?

Imbue Design, Home exterior, Bear River Range
Nestled into a grass-covered hill in Idaho’s Bear River Range, a remote modern home emphasizes energy-efficient design and serene indoor-outdoor living. The nearest neighbor is a moose residing in a nearby stand of quaking aspen. Photo courtesy Imbue Design

In truth, it’s both. The homeowner craved a remote getaway located far from the hustle-and-bustle of city life, a place where he and his family could reconnect with nature and escape the demands of the digital-world. He also craved modern design that connects to nature. To locate the ideal spot for an isolated retreat, the owner returned to the place of his childhood summer vacations near Bear Lake, Idaho. There he found it, seemingly in the middle of nowhere: a perfect site located near a stand of quaking aspen trees, part of a sixty-acre parcel of rolling grassy hills surrounded by the Bear River Mountains that run from southeastern Idaho across the state line into northern Utah.  

Oculus, Stone sculpture, Bear River Range
In the central courtyard, an ever-evolving sculpture is created by guests who collect stones during their hikes and add them to the stack located below a large oculus. Photo courtesy Imbue Design

To design the 2,125-square-foot sanctuary, the owner hired Imbue Design, a Utah-based firm headed by designers Chris Talvy, Hunter Gundersen and Matt Swindel. The firm prides itself on creating modern designs that “promote deliberate living and conscious architecture.” That is exactly what their client desired for his family’s Southern Idaho getaway.

Imbue Design, Bear River Range, Upper roofline, Canopy, Central courtyard, Photovoltaic array, Battery storage, Backup generator, Roof overhangs
The self-sustaining home’s upper roofline creates a canopy that shades and protects a central courtyard enclosed on three sides by the residence’s triad of structures. Electricity and heat are provided by a photovoltaic array positioned atop the canopy with supplemental battery storage and a back-up generator. Roof overhangs help provide cool shading during summer while broad, strategically placed windows harness the sun’s energy during winter. Photo courtesy Imbue Design

The owner’s vision for the project—a spartan shelter within the Bear River range—inspired the design of three small structures that gather under an open-air pavilion or “canopy.” The buildings—including a main residence, guest quarters and utilitarian storage—enclose an expansive covered outdoor living area on three sides. The fourth side opens to the rolling hills and views of Paris Peak to the west. Strategically positioned, the structures also perform as windbreaks—crucial in the open range.

Bear River Range, Hunter Gundersen, Matt Swindel, Kitchen, Living area, Art collection
As seen from the covered courtyard, designers Hunter Gundersen and Matt Swindel chat in a modern kitchen that opens to the main living area furnished by the homeowners. An art collection created by the owners’ daughters is displayed on gallery-white walls throughout the interior. Photo courtesy Imbue Design

The setting’s harsh climate inspired the home’s exterior material, as did the owner’s demand for a low-maintenance dwelling. Imbue responded with accordion metal panels that completely cover the structures in dimensional cladding. “The seams stand off the house a little bit, so there’s a visual rhythm created by the play of light on the exterior that changes throughout the day,” Talvy explains. A large oculus integrated into the courtyard’s overhead canopy also provides an ever-changing light show as sunlight streams through its hoop-shaped opening. “The oculus becomes a timepiece as light traces across the ground, the interior living spaces and the buildings,” Talvy says. “It represents time well spent.”

Imbue Design, Bear River Range, Living area, Entry, Fireplace, Rolled steel, Full-height windows, Atlantic white cedar
Separating the main living area from the entry, a custom fireplace crafted from hot rolled steel features a cantilevered design. Full-height windows fill the interior with light, and ceilings clad with Atlantic white cedar visually warm the space below. Photo courtesy Imbue Design

To pull the outside in, the designers strategically integrated floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the minimally adorned interior with abundant light that accentuates the intrinsic quality of natural materials featured throughout. In the main residence, for example, a wall of glass doors seems to disappear as it slides back to reveal a 25-foot-wide opening that seamlessly connects the covered courtyard to the interior’s combined living and kitchen area. There, a floating cantilevered fireplace crafted from hot-rolled steel anchors one end of the room, while a custom kitchen furnished with white oak cabinets and Carrara marble countertops defines the other. Above, Atlantic white cedar dresses the ceiling, while below, floors of unfinished concrete provide a worry-free surface warmed by radiant heat. “Our client loved the idea of concrete,” says Gundersen. “By leaving them unsealed, they become part of the family’s record of living in the house.”  The team’s thoughtful design extends to the home’s energy efficiency, as well.

Bear River Range, Cooking area, Living space, Kitchen island, Dining table, Prep station, Oak cabinetry, Carrara marble
Separating the cooking area from the main living space, a uniquely designed island doubles as a dining table and a sink-based prep station. The compact kitchen’s minimum ornamentation accentuates the natural beauty of its white oak cabinetry and Carrara marble surfaces. Photo courtesy Imbue Design

Because there are no utility connections for miles, the team created the home with energy in mind and employed passive solar strategies across the board. The designers calculated roof overhangs for maximum summer cooling and positioned energy-efficient windows to harness energy from the sun during the winter. Their strategic window and door placement fosters cross-ventilation inside the home that improves interior comfort. “It almost feels like you’re sitting outside,” Gundersen says. Superior insulation and sealing techniques also play an important role. “We focus on air-tightness because more than 70 percent of heat loss is due to air exchange,” Talvy explains. For electricity and heat, the owners rely on a photovoltaic array positioned atop the canopy, as well as supplemental battery storage and a back-:up generator.

Imbue Design, Bear River Range, Step-down tub, Master bathroom,
“We wanted the back wall to dive into the tub,” says Talvy, describing the master bathroom’s design. Expansive windows provide the tile-clad, step-down tub with views of grass-covered, rolling hills. Photo courtesy Imbue Design

All agree that the project more than satisfied the goal of creating a remote, restorative retreat that connects to and lives with the land. “The owner wanted it to look like it actually grew from the site,” Talvy explains. Whether glimpsing the structure from afar or admiring its design details up close, the dwelling looks and feels naturally at home, there in the middle of nowhere.

Bear River Range, Courtyard, Oculus
Expansive windows and doors open to the spacious courtyard. There, a large oculus invites daylight to flood the living spaces and alter their atmosphere as the sun moves across the sky. Photo courtesy Imbue Design

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Brad Mee
Brad Mee is the Editor-in-Chief of Utah Style & Design Magazine.