Perfectly perched

With a rock garden outside and rock and roll inside, a couple with distinct passions create a grown-up house for the young at heart

Story by Mara Severin • Photos by Chugach Peaks Photography

Erma MacMillan and Sean Elder's Sand Lake home blurs the boundaries between nature and culture, wilderness and order, artistry and instinct. Nestled neatly into a gently sloping lot, the graceful exterior boasts more curves than angles. In fact it has been referred to, and more than once, as a modern-day Quonset hut. Inspired by the beauty of an arched garden structure, Erma suggested the shape to Mark Ivy, the home's architect.

"I just said I liked it," says Erma, unaware at the time that the curved roof would really come to "define the house." Surrounded by a plethora of ferns, shrubs, native plants and flowers, the house melds beautifully and organically into its surroundings.

Alaskan gardening – where nature meets nurture

The beauty of the home's landscaping comes as no surprise. Erma is the manager for design and sales at Green Connection, and her talents are seen everywhere (though she's quick to point out that the garden is new and "very much a work in progress"). "We wanted to preserve as much of the natural habitat as possible," explains Erma. But she had to fight for it. "This required a constant struggle with excavators, contractors and utility companies! They want to chop everything in sight."

The outskirts of the property is host to a kind of controlled wilderness with native grasses and wild plants allowed to grow with abandon – "absolute nature," in Erma's words. The strong silhouette of Devil's club gives way to the bright colors of Elderberry bushes. "Most people just pull it all out," says Erma, instead of embracing the textures, colors and interest that native plants lend. "I avoided using fussier, more conventional flowering plants," she says. That they require little to no care, she adds, is just a bonus.

As you approach the house, the plants seem to become a bit better behaved – slightly more manicured striations of color and texture – but with shapes that "echo the shapes of the native landscape beyond," says Erma. "Birdbaths and containers with flowers and contrast foliage are placed within the more unstructured plantings and close to entrances which are designed as more formal spaces. They provide color and touches of more 'civilized' gardening," she explains.

To the right of the house, an inviting path gradually ascends alongside a small field of Nepeta, a tall flower of a luminous blue which Erma planted as a nod to her travels in Provence. She was inspired by the fields and fields of lavender she saw there and while lavender won't thrive in the Alaskan climate, she planted the next best thing.

A view for all seasons

Inside the open, breezy home, light pours in everywhere – from the floor-to-ceiling windows, from skylights, through glass walls, and most unexpectedly, through the glass walkway that connects the open staircase to the upstairs bedrooms. "I appreciate how the light will change and that will change the shadows and the perception of angles all over the house," says Erma.

In addition to offering light, the window-walls give views of the beautiful gardens on the other side. In winter, when the trees are bare, they offer mountain views. In summer, the trees fill in and create a sense of serenity and privacy. The outside is invited in, bringing nature into a decidedly civilized home.

Peace and quiet meets rhythm and blues

Echoing the garden's tranquility, the home's décor is subtle and peaceful, with a mellow and natural palette. Basic and sustainable exposed material – bamboo, polished concrete, Marmoleum – create clean lines and unusual angles, but "with no hard edges," says Erma. An Asian aesthetic informs the house and it comes as no surprise that Erma practices meditation and yoga. And while an inviting, sun-drenched meditation loft was built into the second floor of the house, one feels that anywhere in the home would be a serene place to meditate.

While Erma's passion is the garden, Sean's passion is music. A songwriter and passionate guitarist, Sean is also a member of the rock band Culture Shock. This is not your teenage son's garage band. Sean's "practice room" is a professionally outfitted, 750-square-foot recording studio with a state-of the-art sound system, a large stage, and space for a good-sized audience – even one that's dancing. It has been the site of many an "impromptu jam session," says Erma.

A tree house for grown-ups

In fact, the whole house, with its nooks and lofts, its angles and walkways, seems designed for entertaining. The staircase is a perfect perch for people watching and the upstairs lofts always seem to invite guests. "I'm always finding glasses in them the next day," she says. Erma thinks that there's a childlike feeling to perching up in small spaces. And with the expansive windows peering out into an enchanting garden, the experience is almost like being in a treehouse – a very luxurious treehouse.