A Sussex County Lake House Makes For a Comfy Compound

A once-rustic lake house on 77 wooded acres in Sussex County is transformed into an eco-friendly family retreat.

Light pours into the living room of Kathy and John Junek's Sussex County lake house.
Light pours into the living room of Kathy and John Junek's Sussex County lake house.
Photo by Michel Arnaud

Kathy and John Junek and their five grown children are scattered all over the country—a handful in Minneapolis, a few in Boston, two in New York City—so gatherings are sacred events. That’s what led the couple to renovate and expand their prized lake house near Vernon in Sussex County, creating a family compound where everyone can convene for holidays and summer weekends.

The Juneks bought the lake house in 1998 when they were living in Madison and their five children were still young. Shortly after, John, an attorney and senior executive with a major financial-planning firm, was transferred to Minneapolis, a lifestyle change that Kathy expected to last maybe two years tops. “I thought we’d move back by 2000,” she says. To their surprise, they’re still living there. The Juneks made a point, however, of frequently returning to the Garden State—and the lake house has remained the welcoming place for family gatherings.

“This is the most central place for everyone to meet,” says Kathy. “This is where we spend every major holiday.” So the pair decided to overhaul what had been a rustic home, transforming it into a comfortable destination for the whole family.

The house they bought in 1998 bears no resemblance to the contemporary, light-filled, open-floor-plan home that it is today. A late 1970s split-level, it had four bedrooms and two baths, with an odd layout and virtually no view of the private lake. The ceilings were low and the roof leaky. “There was even strange carpeting going up the walls,” says Kathy. Luckily, the Juneks were introduced to architect Gita Nandan; they immediately hit it off. “I just said, ‘Let’s do it,’” says Kathy. She and John returned to Minneapolis, entrusting Nandan with the project.

Nandan and partner Mark Mancuso are principal architects in Thread Collective, a Brooklyn-based firm committed to sustainable design, emphasizing a low carbon footprint while building structures that blend naturally into their environment. “Our first priority was to reorient the house and make a deeper connection to the landscape,” says Nandan. “We wanted to frame the views.”

To handle the work, they hired Vernon-based builder Mike Patterson. “Mike was amazing,” says Nandan. “He really cared about this project.”

The architectural plan called for demolishing most of the existing house, leaving only the dining room and living room framing—and the massive stone chimney. “Everything else is new,” Nandan says. Because the existing house was not level, sitting on natural rock outcroppings, they had to blast away huge amounts of bedrock. “We needed to level the first floor,” says Nandan. “This is meant to be an aging-in-place house. They wanted to be able to move about freely on the first floor.”

Nandan kept the existing footprint, with the exception of one expansion: the family room off the kitchen. The new house is essentially three connected structures, all clad in natural cedar, sealed to retain its original color. “It won’t weather to gray,” says Nandan. Roofing is standing-seam aluminum, which adds a modern, barn-like vibe, she says. The Juneks brought in their Minneapolis landscaper, Dave Grace, to further integrate the house into its surroundings. Case in point: He repurposed much of the blasted bedrock as massive boulders to line the driveway and frame the home’s entrance.

Nandan’s firm incorporated several green-design concepts. The carport and the entry portico are each topped by a green—or living—roof, built to be planted with vegetation over a waterproof membrane. These unique gardens provide “a visual of greenness,” says Nandan. “They’re designed for the storm water.” The idea is that the green roof creates a cool, shady canopy for the space below (the entryway, or the car park), holding rain that slowly drains out and waters the lawn. “They require very little maintenance since we don’t mind the weeds,” she says.

Spray-foam insulation—another energy saver—also helps with sound mitigation, explains Nandan. That’s essential for the open floor plan. Floors throughout—and ceilings in several rooms—are white oak, as are the beams in the dining and living rooms. “The light oak brings in the natural daylight,” she says. “It gives a brighter, more organic feeling to the space.” Expansive windows, all energy efficient and double paned, provide lake views from every room.

Faux ducks floating in the lake are actually markers holding the tubes for the geothermal heat exchange, the heating and cooling system for the entire house. There is no actual air-conditioning unit. “Since the lake water stays relatively cool, it’s a very energy-efficient way to cool the house,” says Nandan. “In the winter it does the reverse. It’s definitely a way to conserve costs.”

The project took about two years from the start of the design to completion and added about 600 square feet. There are now seven bedrooms and 5-1/2 baths; other than the first-floor master suite, there are no assigned bedrooms. “Whoever gets here first just grabs a bedroom,” says son Mark, who lives in New York City and is a frequent visitor. “Every room has its own charm and its own view. Plus we never spend that much time in there anyway.”

The house is casual, with a flowing floor plan that promotes mingling among family and friends. The open kitchen is designed for multiple cooks; with two ovens, two refrigerators and an expansive center island, there’s ample room for a crowd. “We all pitch in for meals,” says Mark. Furnishings in the adjacent rooms are simple and minimal, and no space is off limits or too precious for wet bathing suits. Summer days are spent in kayaks and canoes, swimming and fishing for perch and bass in the spring-fed lake, and hiking the family’s 77 acres of wooded, rolling land. Meals are often eaten outside on the spacious stone patio overlooking the lake.

Even post-dinner clean up provides precious memories. “We turn up the tunes and have a family dance party,” says Mark. “No one in my family is a wallflower, at least not at a Junek dance party.”

Architects: Gita Nandan and Mark Mancuso, principals, Thread Collective, Brooklyn, New York; 718-484-0065. Builder: Mike Patterson, Artistic Construction, Vernon; 973-476-3836. Millworker: Darren Edsall, Darren Edsall Custom Woodworking, Lafayette; 973-222-0722. Landscaper: Dave Grace, Dave Grace Landscape, Minneapolis, Minnesota; 651-278-4731.

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  1. AmericanProperties


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