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Blending Modern Design and a Natural Warmth, This Family Home by Alterstudio is a Suburban Retreat in the Trees

The Art of Living

The Art of Living

Styling by Katie Volk

It came as no surprise to learn that Kevin Alter, of architectural firm Alterstudio, has dabbled in ceramics. “I’ve had a former life as a potter, in college. I love when you take a piece off the wheel and your hand prints on it or you put it in the kiln and it shows flashes from the flames,” says Alter. “The goal isn’t perfection. The goal is a controlled serendipity.”

The Sugar Shack home, named for the street on which the Westlake lot sits, is a flawless example of such a process. The building fits like a puzzle piece — slipping between trees and perching on stilts among the shifting elevation. It lies on the left side of the jagged property, its back end angled to cantilever over a large drop-off. Alter refers to these potential complications, like large live oaks and a full-blown cliff, as opportunities. “With our work, we begin by wondering what’s good about it and how do you make it better and how to suppress what could be problematic,” says Alter. “This little motion of cranking the plan keeps it with the contour of the land, and it also gives you a beautiful condition that when you’re upstairs, you’re either looking into the courtyard, which is a lovely little world, or into the tree canopy.”

“We love the thoughtful way the house was designed with the lot’s topography,” says Katie Henry, who hired the firm with her husband, Stanton. “We knew we loved their aesthetic, so we just gave them some basic parameters and let them go to town on the design. I’d describe it as modern, with a slight nod to midcentury. It’s understated and unfussy, but when you get up close, you notice all the little design details that make it special.”

Like a finely tailored suit, the simplicity of the home has everything to gain in the way it hangs just right on the Henry family. Though the building is modern, with clean lines of steel, cement, and fumed oak, its abstract qualities allow for the appreciation of patterns and pleasures of floor-to-ceiling windows and open-concept living. “The home is something special that came out of the partnership rather than us using them as a vehicle to make our art,” says Alter, who designed the project with the firm’s partners, Tim Whitehill and Ernesto Cragnolino, and project manager Daniel Shumaker. “We’re trying to build something that has a life of its own.”