Studio MM Architect Masters The Approach of Indoor-Outdoor Hudson Valley Design
Architect Marica McKeel can’t think of a more stunning landscape for her designs than the Hudson Valley. McKeel, who founded Studio MM Architect, was drawn to the valley’s natural beauty, but also the wealth of local craftsmanship. “There is a history of design and craftsmanship in the Hudson Valley that as architects we have the opportunity to showcase and, hopefully, add to,” she said. “The local builders are talented and know their craft extremely well and the local furniture makers and designers are using their surroundings as inspiration. I wanted to be a part of that. The proximity to a number of major cities is also a plus—many of our clients work in New York City or Philadelphia, so having ease of access is really important.”
McKeel did not start her career as a residential architect. While working at Santiago Calatrava’s New York City office, she was tasked with designing his private residence and realized she enjoyed working at such an intimate scale. The project allowed her to consider what she wanted to focus on, which turned out to be modern homes in the Hudson Valley. McKeel first opened a New York City office in 2010 and by 2015 had an additional office in the Hudson Valley. According to McKeel, her firm’s approach to working with clients is one of the things that sets it apart.
“We really try to dive deep into each of our clients’ lives—we send them a personalized questionnaire at the start of our process that asks them lots of questions about how they live and what their hopes are for their new home. That’s our starting point—and then throughout the process, we really emphasize client feedback, which can result in some really beautiful and surprising designs.”
Evaluating and respecting the site is also a large part of the process.
“We spend time onsite at the very beginning of the process, understanding the physical landscape as well as the relationship between the house site, any potential views and the sun. During our initial design phases, we think about house orientation and the movement of the sun across the sky. While we work through our designs in three dimensions, we also think about roof overhangs and passive heating and cooling from the sun and ground. As residential architects, we have a real opportunity to respect the home’s site and to highlight it using the design. So many of our clients come to us looking for inside-outside design—and so we really try to focus on creating a seamless flow from interior to exterior.”
One home that whimsically honors its site is Cat Hill in Kerhonkson.
“Our client for Cat Hill came to us with that image of being in and amongst the trees,” said McKeel. “That home is really a celebration of all of her accomplishments—she is a marathon runner, a businesswoman, an art collector, a musician—and the treehouse space is her studio space. This project is a really great example of that indoor-outdoor feeling that so many of our clients are craving.”
Cat Hill sits on a densely wooded site that features dramatic changes in elevation. Situated on a steep ridgeline it overlooks the Catskill Mountains and a running creek below. “Along the ridgeline, we found a knoll that sticks out like a long finger,” said McKeel. “The unique topography of that ‘finger’ enabled us to keep everything on a single-story while achieving that feeling of being suspended amongst the trees. As the ground slopes away, the studio floats above—and in the winter, the treehouse becomes a snow globe, showcasing the seasons of the Hudson Valley.”
The studio space was both the biggest focal point of the home and the biggest challenge.
“The complexity of the site meant that during construction we needed to embrace flexibility and adapt to the realities of the topography. After the concrete piers were poured, we needed to make a few adjustments. We widened the art gallery, adjusted the angle of the studio, and eliminated a window. While the exact placement of the studio shifted, our concept of the space never did.”
One of the firm’s most playful and yet practical creations is a revamp of the Modern Accord Depot. The owners of the 1902 train depot envisioned a vibrant playful space that would serve as an off-site studio for their dance company and also a place to host retreats. They were intent on preserving and repurposing the original elements of the space.
“It was really their dream and passion that we were lucky enough to be a part of,” said McKeel.
“We looked at lots of historical photographs of the building and while renovating the structure there were certain elements that we really wanted to keep—the ticket window, for example. The depot was a fun combination of programs for us—part dance studio and part sleeping and living space, it really pushed us to think creatively about how to use space. Keeping the whimsy of the old station and adding a modern volume for the staircase felt like a great way to respect the original design of the station while adding a bit of modern fun to the structure.”
McKeel’s inventive approach to residential design is also evident in her treatment of building materials. A Kerhonksen home named the TinkerBox for its rectangular shape is clad in premium cedar siding that has been charred in the Shou Sugi ban technique. The Japanese technique of charring wood, then coating it with oil, provides an attractive durable finish without chemical treatments. “We also love taking inspiration from the site,” said McKeel. “That home with the charred wood also features stair treads milled from hardwood trees from the site. We have a project where local masons chiseled stone found onsite for the home’s facade. It’s really about understanding the site conditions, client preferences about aesthetics and longevity, and what materials are readily available and fit in with the immediate surroundings.”
Tenderly placed into the landscape, McKeel’s homes feature expansive well-oriented windows to view the natural surroundings and create sun-filled interiors. Considering the climate, they also often include a large indoor storage space for firewood.
“A big thing we recommend for many of our clients is a wood-burning fireplace or fire stove. They provide an immense amount of heat that can really lower energy costs and are such a great feature to introduce a sense of coziness into a home. Understanding the realities of living upstate, we knew early on that having a covered area for wood storage is critical. Not only can it be a beautiful design moment, but it’s very much a functional choice. We usually design a nook area near the fireplace for indoor wood storage. Nobody wants to go outside into the snow to grab a new log for the fire. We also tend to design larger storage areas for wood outside to keep a steady supply of dry wood available. These design moments are often a nice visual feature at the entryway or near an exterior deck.”
McKeel’s upstate office is located in her home, but an expansion is planned. “I’m the only one working here full-time, but it’s a great base for my team when they come upstate and a perfect place for client meetings. We love our home. We originally built it as a weekend home, but over time have really fallen in love with the area and moved here full time a couple of years ago. I really love the wildlife on our property. From deer to chipmunks and owls to the occasional bear, I love being able to see it all from my office windows. We’re really committed to staying up in the Hudson Valley now, and are actually in the midst of building a new home—one that is more suited as a full-time residence and that has a more expansive office for my team.”
McKeel appreciates the local community of artists and makers and loves attending Field + Supply and Upstate Art Weekend. I love witnessing and taking part in local events. We’ve also made many friends in the area—from the local bartenders to other designers. The sense of community in such a rural place was a really beautiful surprise.”
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