This Unusual Family Compound is Built into Sebago Lake’s Hillside

Jenny Morrison’s curated design keeps the halfway-underground home feeling bright

When interior designer and builder Jenny and Josh Morrison first saw the site on the shores of Sebago, they knew immediately it would present some challenges. “It was a beautiful, lakeside, hillside site,” says Josh. “It had a few boulders on top, so we were optimistic that it would be easy.” As they would find it, that wasn’t the case.
On the exterior, the builders chose western hemlock. (Their first choice, eastern cedar, was unavailable due to pandemic supply shortages.) “The architectural style is a blend of modern clean lines and traditional forms,” explains Josh. “We did a horizontal lap siding, which is a fairly traditional profile, and we went a bit wider with it, which is more modern. It created a duality, a back-and-forth. We did traditional gable ends with thinner trim, and a more modern style with the flat casing.”
According to architect Chris Delano, the greatest success of the home is how the upper level speaks to (and leads into) the ground floor. “It’s always a question of where is that primary space; with this house, we didn’t want it elevated. We wanted it to be grounded,” says Delano. “It made sense to enter into the upper level and take the stairs down.”
At first, it wasn’t clear whether they would be able to fit a window into the lower-floor kitchen, which was built into the hillside. “Even though we have that dark green on the kitchen cabinets, it doesn’t feel dark,” says homeowner Chris Stone. “It contrasts with the hardware, and the natural light really helps.”
The stairs face floor-to-ceiling windows, which draw visitors downstairs and outside.
The bedrooms are relatively small for a build of this size; the couple decided to save space in the sleeping areas to maximize social space.

Most homes are designed so that visitors enter through a semi-public space—a foyer that flows into the salon or living room. I’ve visited dozens of houses over the years. While there are many differences in style, format, and materials, they typically follow the same basic formula when it comes to public and private. After all, houses must fulfill a variety of functions. We use them for entertaining, gathering, hosting, sleeping, eating, and bathing. It’s worth having distinct areas for these discrete actions.

“Our house is an upside-down house,” says Chris Stone.* “You walk in the front door, and that’s where the bedrooms are.” But unlike some reverse floor plans, this one keeps the sleeping areas on the upper level. The rest of the house, where people hang out, cook, and congregate—that’s all downstairs, built into the hillside. 

The Stone’s home on the shores of Sebago Lake is unusual, tailored to fit the family’s needs and speak to the couple’s traditional New England style while also playing nicely with the other buildings in the compound. Designed by architect Chris Delano of Delano Architecture in Saco, built by Josh Morrison of R.P. Morrison Builders in Windham, and finished with the interior design expertise of Jenny Morrison (also of R.P. Morrison Builders as well as Morrison Design House), the lake house is both rugged and sleek, bright and cozy. “I think the success of this house comes down to the collaborative nature of the project,” says Jenny Morrison. “Between Morrison Design House, the builders, the homeowners, and the architect—I don’t think something like this could have happened if we didn’t work so wonderfully together.” 

The homeowners, Chris and Allyson Stone*, were low maintenance from the beginning, but their building site was not. “It’s a beautiful, lakefront, hillside site. It looked like it had just a few boulders on top, so we were optimistic it would be easy,” says Josh Morrison. “But it turned out that we had to carve in a 900-foot road, including building retaining walls and moving stone around.” It took six weeks of drilling and blasting to prepare the property for building. For Delano, one of the big challenges was figuring out how to situate the house. Since the couple was building on the same property as other family members, and the ultimate goal was to have three full-size houses on the lot, Delano had to place the structures very carefully. “We wanted to give each house privacy and separation, and make sure their views would not go out or into each other, but down to the lake,” explains Delano. “With this house, we pushed it to the side and the back of the property line.” Then they sunk the structure into the stone to partially submerge the lower level. “We didn’t want the house to stand out like a sore thumb,” adds Chris. “It is a pretty wild site in many respects, and our first goal was to build something that isn’t inconsistent with the natural environment.” 

Another consideration was the budget. “The guys on-site asked me a few times why the bedrooms only have eight-foot-high ceilings,” says Delano. “It’s a normal height, but with a build of this caliber, it’s unusual.” The homeowners decided to build small, simple, cozy bedrooms and go all-out on the living spaces. “We sleep in our bedrooms, and that’s about it,” says Allyson. “We were open-minded about almost everything, but we felt strongly about the square footage. It was a finite resource.” From an architectural perspective, it made sense to have visitors enter through the upper level (where there’s parking) before descending into the main space. “We decided to use floor-to-ceiling glass, so when you walk in through the mudroom, you’ll feel like you’re right in the trees,” Delano says. “To create a vertical connection between the two levels, we added floor-to-ceiling windows to both levels, so the view takes you down the stairs. It’s odd, right off the get-go, to enter the bedroom space. The big, booming view keeps it from feeling like you’re walking into a private area.” Since Chris and Allyson are drawn to New England–style homes, Delano opted for vertical-proportioned windows, natural clapboard siding, thick trim, and a familiar pitched roof shape. Although the house isn’t small, it also doesn’t dominate the space. “Our goals were practical and aesthetic,” says Chris. And when it came to the interior spaces, “light was big on our list.” 

The task of creating a halfway-underground space that feels bright, airy, and warm fell on Jenny Morrison’s capable shoulders. “Chris and Allyson really wanted their house to be unique, and to have a different feel from the parents’ house [also on the compound], so I knew right away that a lighter color palette would work well,” she says. Although the original plan had several more interior walls, Jenny suggested opening the living room, dining room, and kitchen areas. She also found a place in the kitchen to squeeze in another window, allowing more sunshine to pour into the lower level. “We made that decision after we had finished exterior framing and were pretty far into interior framing,” she recalls. “They loved Studio Green by Farrow and Ball, and I thought, this will be way too dark.” The earthy green tone needed natural light to reveal its full dimensionality. “The colors Jenny used really feel consistent with the natural landscape of Maine,” Chris says. “The dark green in the kitchen doesn’t feel dark, because we have simple cabinet hardware in that natural brass color, and the countertops and island aren’t the same color.” The contrast, he explains, brightens up the whole space. “We both love that we were able to utilize that great dark green without making a space that feels too dark.” 

The organic color scheme continues throughout the house with tranquil, watery blues and familiar greens. “I really referenced the lake,” explains Jenny. “They have quite a unique property, and the view from the house toward the lake is all green, with that Sebago blue beyond.” On the ground floor, a bunk room with built-in beds provides extra sleeping space for guests. “This house is meant for entertaining,” Jenny says. “They have a big family, so the intent is to have both houses on the property packed with family and friends.” Durability was important, so Jenny used natural wool rugs with a high pile on the floors, quartzite countertops that have a marble look, and performance fabric on all the furniture. “Synthetic fibers are easier to clean, but I prefer using natural in my designs whenever possible,” she says. “And with a good, strong pile height on a 100 percent wool rug, anything spilled on it stays right on top. It doesn’t penetrate the fibers below. It’s more cleanable than you would think.” 

The kitchen and bathrooms are similarly easy to maintain, thanks to a liberal use of tile, hearty built-in cabinets, and simple, geometric hardware. “In terms of the light fixtures, Jenny totally got us,” says Allyson. “We’re not fancy, intricate-style people, and she stayed within a budget that worked for us.” To keep the decor from appearing overly plain, Jenny used a variety of textures and materials, including brass, iron, and chrome. The brass in the kitchen offsets the green cabinets and ivory tile, while in the bathrooms silver knobs and sconces reflect the gray undertones of the teal tiles and the marbled countertops. At the beginning of the process, Chris mentioned his interest in shiplap, which Jenny filed away for later reference. “I used nickle-gap in the spaces that felt large to give a sense of compression,” she says. “Texture always makes a room feel warmer, which is important when you’re having a lot of people over.” She cites the bathroom tile, “which is so beautiful, it looks just like pebbles,” as adding another subtle layer of detail to the home. 

But when it comes to warmth, nothing beats a big, gracious fireplace. For this build, Jenny and Josh decided to source wood from the property. Relatively few trees were taken down during the build, but among them was an old red oak. The Morrisons’ carpenters used this timber to create a floating mantel above the soapstone fireplace, yet another nod to the significance of the local landscape. “We like to sit and look through the trunks out at the lake,” says Allyson. Over the past few years, the couple has spotted foxes, porcupines, and even an albino deer tiptoeing around the birches. They’ve watched the lake change color with the sunset and seen the shadows creep over Mount Washington in the distance. They kayak, swim, hike, and host. “This is a place where we can all get together with our kids and dogs, and maybe someday our grandkids,” says Allyson. “We didn’t want it to be delicate. We wanted to go outside and come back in without worrying about making a mess.” Chris adds,
“It was a real team effort, and we couldn’t be happier with the result.”  

*Names have been changed to protect the homeowners’ privacy.