A shared vision strengthens a Michigan couple’s bonds.
Phil and Denise Swy had heard that undertaking a major project, such as building a home, could stress a marriage. They’d have no part of that. Instead, they sat down and drafted a 25-year plan leading to the completion of their dream home in northern Michigan. They stuck to the plan and, when all was said and done, found that their shared experience strengthened their relationship.
The plan began with buying a pie shaped lot on Lake Michigan and building a 25-by-40-foot log cabin from Maple Island Log Homes to use as their vacation home. Phil had already spent time in the area, thanks to a fraternity brother who rented an old log home on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. «I fell in love with that home,» he recalls, «and then I fell in love with Denise.»
Once they became a couple, Phil and Denise kept coming to the bluff house and then rented another log cabin for eight years until they built their own cabin. It was a five-hour drive from their home downstate, but they endured the trip because they so enjoyed the area and knew that, according to their plan, they’d someday be moving there full time. They started that chapter after their youngest son graduated from high school.
Because their lakefront lot was in a «critical dunes» area, their house plans had to meet a host of environmental requirements. They hired a local architect who knew the guidelines and brought creative vision, although he wasn’t all that familiar with log construction. For that, the Swys relied on their builder and log provider.
As the design unfolded, the couple agreed on certain features they had to have in the home. «We knew we wanted a big kitchen, open to the living and dining areas, so that when we had big gatherings, everyone could move around freely,» Denise says. Phil adds, «I worked my whole life to be able to have this home on the lake and wanted to share it with others by entertaining. It’s a big part of what we wanted this home to be.»
They also wanted high ceilings on the main level, but not peaked ones. They’re 10 feet from floor to ceiling beams and another foot or so to the actual ceiling boards. «The extra height allows us to feel cozy and comfortable but still open,» Phil says, noting that much of the upper level does have peaked ceilings.
They didn’t always agree. They changed window sizes three times. «I wanted them small for energy efficiency,» Phil says. Denise says, «I wanted bigger ones for the view. I also wanted windows that open for breezes, and the ones we got are the biggest Pella sold that open. The beach is just steps away, and the windows let you feel that you’re right there with it.»
After a few other minor compromises, the Swys arrived at a design for a 3,700-square-foot home on two levels. For their logs, they chose Maple Island Log Homes. «I looked at other companies but wanted big logs and preferred to do business with someone locally,» Phil says, explaining that the home uses handcrafted red pine logs harvested from the Upper Peninsula, averaging 12 to 14 inches in diameter and 30 to 40 feet long.
They hired Dennis Coburn to build the home, primarily because he was experienced with the style home they wanted. As a result, he was able to solve several problems. «We actually have two log structures: the log home and the log garage,» Phil explains, «separated with a stick-built section front foyer, half-bath, laundry, beach room and upstairs study. Dennis pointed out the two parts would settle at different rates and recommended we have Maple Island engineer a log purling roof system. The result allowed open ceilings on the upper level and more living room above the garage, which Denise turned into her yoga studio.»
The Swys were amazed that the log shell could be delivered and set in just four days. Finishing the project took quite a bit longer. «Dennis gave us a timetable of 18 months, but we had great weather, and he finished in 16 months,» Denise says.
They contributed labor, mostly Denise, who moved on-site during construction, staying in the cabin. She painted all the upstairs drywall and filled «thousands of nail holes for the trim,» Phil says. As the project progressed, Coburn and his subs often came to her with suggestions for changes, few of which he charged for. She also initiated tweaks, often enough that Phil says she qualified for the title of «Queen of Change.»
Coburn remained accommodating. At one point, she wanted to move an electrical switch that was already mounted in a log. He solved her problem by cutting the log in half and replacing the half holding the switch with another half log that fit perfectly.
After they moved in, the couple brought some furniture from their former home — «special pieces that friends and family had given us,» Denise notes — but most they bought new. «Some people may think it isn’t colorful enough, but I wanted calmer colors: browns and aqua,» she says, calling the decor «rustic elegance.» Phil describes it as «eclectic toward antique.»
They kept the cabin, which is only 25 feet away. They had intended converting it to a garage for the main house, but they realized it held so many memories that «none of us wanted to see it become a garage,» Phil says. It’s now a studio for their two boys, one who’s an artist and the other who’s a musician.
Having lived there for five years, the couple finds the place fills with guests in the summer. «You can’t live on a lake in summer without constant company,» Phil says. They welcome their guests but cherish the time they spend with one another. Their favorite spot is two chairs in front of the windows overlooking the lake and spotting wildlife.
«Living here has brought us even closer together,» Phil says. «We even clean house and cook together, and we appreciate each other more. It started with the building but that experience has touched our whole lives. Instead of chasing the dream, now we’re living it.»