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Catching Up With Award-Winning Architect Brian MacKay-Lyons

“Everything around here is appropriately named,” says Brian Mackay-Lyons. “Paradise, Eden, especially Powder Mountain. It’s impossible to describe its beauty: the alpine meadows, the Ogden Valley, the Wasatch range and the Salt Lake basin off on the horizon.”  

 Back in 2013, the award-winning architect from Nova Scotia, who’s famous for his understated eco-conscious homes, arrived at the request of Summit Powder Mountain’s founders. After researching smart sustainable designs they learned of Lyons’ celebrated Shobac Village that he designed on the coast near his home. So, they invited him out to pick his brain about their ambitious goal of creating an intentional community on top of Powder Mountain.


What was your objective during that first trip out here to Powder Mountain? 

After a few days of getting to know the Summit founders and their vision for this place, they really wanted to talk about setting some environmental and aesthetic guardrails for the entire project. We’re students of climate and landscape and material and culture and they were adamant about avoiding the Flintstones and Lincoln Log stuff in favor of something that respected the traditions of the area, like the barns in the valley, which are the most beautiful buildings around. But they also want to be modern, in a modern way. And that’s really what we’re all about.   


And that’s how you arrived at the Heritage Modern style we see proliferating up here? 

Well, the Shobac Village back home in Nova Scotia is something I referred to as Critical Regionalist. ‘Critical’ is modern and environmentally sensitive, while ‘regionalist’ acknowledges the local history and culture. After hanging out with the Summit guys for a while they came up with the name to Heritage Modern, which I like. I suppose it’s a bit more natural of a term.

The Horizon cabins are modest monuments on Powder Mountain. They pay homage to Summit’s commitment to high design, big adventure, and tight-knit communities.

How do you best sum up the intent of Heritage Modern when asked? 

There’s a great quote by the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, that sums it up best. “Taken alone, tradition stagnates, modernity vaporizes. When taken together, modernity breeds life into tradition and tradition responds by providing depth and gravity.” 


The Horizon neighborhood you designed here has received a lot of praise in the press. It’s being called “modest and monumental.” Accurate description?   

Some are saying “monumentally modest,” too. I love that. And I think the neighbors do too. The people at Summit Powder Mountain are capital ‘N’ nice. I’m a Canadian, so, you know, we don’t have this wonderful philanthropic tradition that you all have here in the US. And it’s in spades up here, with people are impact investing all over the place. Unconditional niceness is a big part of the intention here. They really don’t want to be ostentatious. Quite the opposite. Which is an ethic I respond to because back home if you have wealth, you don’t show it.  And personally, I believe all culture derives from the poor and that buildings should be simple and timeless.

Building on top of a mountain comes with challenges. What were some of your biggest ambitions and hurdles?

“With so much snow here on top of the mountain, I wanted to get them in the air, floating above it. This would allow us to cut the earth more gently, and we could reduce the need for concrete. Getting concrete up this mountain isn’t easy. As for inside the house we wanted to be sure the social space preserved that large open feel, so the house felt bigger than it was. That’s why we designed them as upside-down cabins. The social space is upstairs, and the private bits are down below. Structurally, that allows for huge windows and cathedral ceilings where everyone is together. And when you’re in that room you’re immersed in nature. You feel like you’re sitting on top of the world.


Today you’re working on more Horizon homes and more custom ones as well. What’s your favorite part?  

One of the main reasons I’m an architect is I love getting inside people’s heads. And one of the greatest things about Powder Mountain is these are really interesting folks. I mentioned how nice they are, but they’re also very interesting folks, doing interesting things, that have impact. For me, it’s a huge thrill to get inside their heads and sync with them. I think that’s what they enjoy about each other, which is the beauty of this community. It’s the building block, really. 

Architectural Digest

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