It is a slightly awkward indulgence for me to write about the Maffei house. As a member of the architectural team, I spent three years working with many talented people to create what I consider to be a striking end result. Completed more than two years ago, its glorious spaces and delicious details—and the complicated task of achieving them—are still close at hand in my memory. Now, with the benefit of some distance, I am struck not only by its beauty and utility, but also by the exceptional teamwork that produced it. Part memoir, part tribute, part insider’s guide, this is the story of how the Maffei house came to be.
The Ketchum house of Sharon and Greg Maffei is, in a word, stunning. A glass and stone prow housing the gathering spaces gently stretches into the private valley below and drinks in spectacular views. Low horizontal shaded forms containing more private spaces anchor this prow to the dished-out hilltop. The house nestles comfortably into the landscape amid exposed rock cliffs, massive boulders and tall native grasses. Inside, exquisite natural materials and precise detailing define voluminous spaces. And within these spaces, furnishings both refined and lyrical celebrate each room.
Neither a brilliant architect or designer, nor a master builder or visionary client, is capable of achieving a product like this in isolation. But in an environment of supportive collaboration, the whole of the team can exceed the sum of its parts.
Though this would be their first home in the Wood River Valley, the Maffeis were no strangers to construction, having completed three previous remodels elsewhere including, most recently, their primary home in Seattle. They were willing to experiment with design and construction methods. They knew what they liked, but afforded the rest of us considerable freedom to provide them with options.
They interviewed three local architects before hiring McLaughlin & Associates to design their contemporary home. While Jim McLaughlin’s firm, practiced in elegant traditionalism, may not have appeared to be the obvious choice, the fit was there. “We liked Jim’s personality and his time frame,” explains Sharon. “He seemed like a lodge guy, but we thought our vision might be a nice change for him and he was excited to do it.”
The Maffeis saw in Storey Construction a group of innovators with plenty of experience. “I liked how Gary (Storey) came up with unique solutions when asked about potential construction issues. He also seemed to know where to go for unusual materials. He seemed to have the resources. Plus, I liked his ponytail,” says Sharon with a wink. Jim and Gary had two decades of history together and Jim calls Gary’s work “topnotch.”
To complete the team, Sharon added her close friend Libby Brost of Libby Brost Design. Libby had helped with all of the remodels and the Maffeis’ wedding in 1996. She and Sharon are kindred spirits who share a love of cooking and entertaining—both integral to the construction and ultimate use of this home.
The site was restricted in all directions. The City of Ketchum determined the building height. A subdivision ordinance set a maximum elevation for the roof. Setbacks fixed the eastern limit of the house. And the pitch of the long driveway dictated the southern edge and the elevation of the first floor. The Maffeis thought that they would be able to look north over Ketchum to the Boulder Mountains from their living room. Jim explains, “It became apparent that this was the last thing the city wanted and that our orientation would be reversed to take advantage of the very private valley, the sun and views to the south.”
Greg Maffei had few requests throughout the process, but Sharon credits his significant influence. “Greg had the vision all the way. He wanted a Frank Lloyd Wright-style home that used prows and natural materials. He wanted to design the exterior; I could have the interior. We struck a deal.”
“The more typical solution to this house on this site would have been a log or timber home with a gabled roof,” Jim adds. “With the desires of our clients to have something more contemporary, we chose a single-pitch roof scheme which makes this house unique and unexpected.” The resulting design “has a contemporary feeling with very traditional materials.”
There were several initial schemes for the house, all having extensive terraces and various forms of decorative structure holding up a soaring roof. The site restrictions helped to limit the possibilities for the floor plan. The simple, mostly symmetrical T-shaped plan was efficient and allowed for the most views in the most directions. The plan was flexible. Wholesale swapping of rooms and functions were made with little effect on the exterior.
As with many custom homes in the Valley, this house was “fast-tracked.” A partial set of drawings was produced to obtain the building permit, and design details continued as construction began. An advantage of this model is that the total project time can be reduced. A disadvantage is that it is nearly impossible to fix the construction cost.
Certainly there was the luxury of a generous budget which allowed for sumptuous materials and graciously sized rooms. But the true luxury for me in this process was time. It was decadent to be able to consider every detail, even things that were not my field of expertise. “I think the decision-making process was incredibly collaborative. The designer and owner had architectural suggestions, the architect had designer suggestions, and the contractor had both . . . loved it! No one became too territorial,” says Sharon.
Gary proposed weekly team meetings which sometimes resulted in failure by committee but more often produced collective wisdom. At the very least, they kept us focused and accountable to the schedule. “If the client is willing, it’s a good process,” Gary explains. “Nothing gets overlooked. Everything is considered before it’s executed.”
Sharon adds, “It was a joy to be in on those collaborative meetings. Personalities meshed incredibly well, given the magnitude of the project and potential issues that could arise . . . and did. Everyone maintained a sense of humor. We’d have our tough discussions, hammer out the issues together, and then smile again.”
David Brown, Storey’s project manager in charge of contract compliance, resisted the urge to roll his eyes as we repeatedly digressed, and kept us on task and on the record. The documentation of this project was comprehensive, filling an entire file cabinet in McLaughlin’s office. Storey’s office used “My Docs Online,” a Web-based tool for organizing construction projects, to post schedules, budgets, pictures and information for subcontractors and clients.
Construction began with the removal of nearly 30,000 cubic yards of earth from the hill. Sharon was skeptical. “It was depressing to watch and I thought we were building a home underground. The end result was a pleasant surprise.”
Kevin Cincotta was Storey’s project manager in charge of erection and layout. He supervised all the heavy lifting and laid a solid framework to ensure that successive construction would go smoothly. Massive retaining walls and towering concrete columns reached skyward.
As the steel beams and columns, framing and structural timbers formed the bones of the building, the team worked at a much smaller scale back at the drawing board. David Lister from Storey’s office was invaluable in coordinating architectural drawings and the shop drawings of multiple trades into cohesive documents. In the midst of this fever pitch, the plan continued to morph. The bathrooms in particular seemed to change continuously. The lesson learned was that things can always continue to change, even after they are built.
Gary flew around the country checking on the progress of the cast bronze windows in New Jersey, researching stone slabs in Seattle and Salt Lake City, and procuring an unusual shade of Chief Cliff stone available at only one quarry in Montana. Both Gary and Jim are private pilots, which helps to expand their realm of resources.
Details were drawn and the opulent finishes were finalized. Though the exterior palette was chosen to blend with the landscape, Libby explains, “Inside I wanted to use materials that wouldn’t be expected.” Dark wenge cabinets with white bronze detailing were paired with thick zinc countertops in the kitchen.
The naturally dark and rich grain of the wood would complement the softer black walnut floors, doors and windows. Zebra wood cabinets and a glass desktop would add a bit of fun to laptop lane, the hub of family activity. All of the bathrooms except one would feature large limestone slabs in creamy warm grays.
John Gladics was Storey’s project manager responsible for subcontractors and field coordination. “I enjoyed the mental challenge of visualizing solutions to the many reverse planning requirements of the house,” he says. An example of this was the construction of a copper shower with no visible fasteners that was essentially constructed from inside out. John’s diligence and attention to detail were critical to the successful outcome of the project.
During the finish phase, as many as 40 subcontractors were on the jobsite at once. Despite potential conflicts, everyone managed to work around each other and kept the mood light. Sharon implemented “Doughnut Wednesdays” on the site and threw a holiday party for everyone under the tented entry. The catered luncheon was complete with table decorations and Starbucks gift cards. Sharon says, “We had such a great group of subs that were incredibly friendly. We wanted to do something for them to show our appreciation for their continued efforts.”
Also during construction, Greg threw a surprise “pink” birthday party for Sharon. Spyder Stevens, Storey’s project manager of finish carpentry coordination, built a low plywood table almost 16 feet on a side to seat 50 for sushi. Guests then drank “pinktinis” and danced until the wee hours to music on an elaborate temporary sound system from Home Media Inc. >>>
Libby’s business also encompasses event design and planning. She recently sold her restaurant, catering business and store in Los Gatos, California, called A Matter of Taste. Suffice it to say that Libby is an extremely sensory person and any event she is involved in is nothing short of spectacular. “With each event or party, I love to have a theme,” she explains. “Not only do the food and drinks have to be good, but the surroundings need to entertain the eye._The house changes with each event. You never want your guests to get bored!” Everything from art gallery fund-raisers to New Year’s parties to weddings have been held at the house—all visually fabulous.
There are no ugly or forgotten corners in the house. The laundry room, with its pristine, all-stainless-steel detailing, floating shelves, stainless subway tile backsplash and Jonathon Wigmore chandelier is arguably one of the best rooms in the house. Libby explains, “Every room is utilized and should be consistent with the rest of the house. Why shouldn’t these spaces have great art or beautiful surfaces to work from?”
Fortunately, when it came to furnishing the house, Libby’s understanding of the architecture and the Maffeis worked to great advantage. Libby would no sooner have put a Chippendale highboy in the great room than she would have put a garden gnome in the front yard. The furnishings she chose are sometimes understated, sometimes dramatic, always meticulously thought out. There is nothing neutral. “One of my favorite furniture pieces is the tête à tête in the master bedroom. I love the softness of the kid leather and the design of the piece,” Libby says of one of the many pieces she commissioned. An antique metal and green glass armoire in the nursery from Ironies in Oakland, California, shagreen nightstands from Davis in Ketchum, and a mirrored silver table in the master bedroom are just a few of the wonderful eclectic things that make each room unique.
Libby’s attention to visual detail extends beyond furnishings as well. Her floral arrangements change constantly and have included everything from elaborate feather bouquets to cut flowers to enormous bowls of Satsuma tangerines. When someone supplied Soft Soap pump dispensers for the bathrooms, Libby had them swiftly removed and replaced with L’Occitane and Cote Bastide. She abhors leftovers and turns all the bottles face front in the glass refrigerator. Nothing is left to chance.
The Maffeis are also avid art collectors and chose beautiful and varied works to display in their home. A Chihuly sculpture from the Ochi Gallery, a Morris Graves and a Mario Reis “Nature Watercolor” from the Gail Severn Gallery, and a Judith Kindler encaustic commissioned through the Anne Reed Gallery are some of the many works Sharon and Libby purchased locally.
Despite the extraordinary beauty and richness of this house, nothing is as precious as its inhabitants. Family photos are everywhere and the house is intensely personal. Favorite books, objects and toys are tucked into unexpected places. The Maffeis’ four children and their friends are just as welcome sitting on the velvet sofas in the living room as they are in the playroom eating popcorn and playing air hockey. “It is always fun to see people enjoying the finished product,” Jim remarks. “The Maffeis are great entertainers, and it is a real thrill to see them sharing their home with multiple guests. The house functions beautifully as an entertaining home.”
There are things about this house in which I take great pride—like the graceful steel railings with integral footlights that string along the stairs and balconies. Dennis Proska of Blackrock Forge fabricated these expertly. There are things that I am humbled by—like the seamless precision with which the kitchen cabinetry turns the corner into the butler’s pantry. And I chuckle when I think back to no less than five of us trying to micromanage the installation of the massive limestone slabs in the master bathroom floor.
The entire process, from conception to occupation, took more than three years. At times it felt like giving birth. In fact, four children were born during the process, two of mine and two of the Maffeis’. The struggles and triumphs were shared by all who participated. Libby elaborates, “Any project of this size and effort comes with a lot of love, sweat and tears.” In the end, I think we gave the Maffeis a house that they love and of which we can all be proud. Sharon beams, “It’s clean and uncluttered and, hopefully, welcoming. I love my friends and family and love to be in an environment that makes them want to stay.”