Bunkhouses once accommodated working cowboys, but this innovative version offers contemporary flourishes and comforts without losing the style’s traditional spirit

Story by Colton Martini | Photography by Gibeon Photography
Montana Territory, known for its vast expanses of open land and unfathomable beauty, shined like a beacon in the 1800s for anyone brave enough to make the journey. The particularly fertile Flathead Valley was home to productive cattle and farming operations, even before Montana achieved statehood in 1889. Droves of cowboys roamed the valley and the surrounding hillsides, tirelessly tending to the livestock and stopping only long enough to eat and sleep.

The ranch bunkhouse, much like a barracks or camp, was historically used to address just those basic needs. Cowboys were traditionally young bachelors, so the typical bunkhouse was largely an open room with many bunk-style beds and cots — privacy was sparse. Wood-fired stoves usually heated these humble abodes, and there was always an outhouse nearby. Modesty was not an afforded luxury.

While the bunkhouse is still a staple of large ranches whose location is simply too far from the nearest town for a daily commute, modern versions are much more comfortable. Bunkhouses now have modern conveniences, including, most importantly, indoor plumbing.

Thus, the bunkhouse tradition is still alive in the Flathead Valley, though the dwellings don’t typically house cowboys and cowgirls anymore. When Mindful Designs was commissioned to build a home on Rocky Knob, it was immediately apparent that it would be a modern bunkhouse in the spirit of those built in the past.

The site sits along a steep ridge, and before the house could be constructed, some inventive engineering was necessary, explains Jason Pohlman of Mindful Designs. Pan decking, used to support the weight of concrete when building bridges, was cantilevered out over the edge of the site, allowing support for the 17-foot-tall foundation walls. This was the only way to orient the house on the site to ideally frame the Whitefish Range and Big Mountain ski area views. Montana moss rock rises from the ground to lay a visual foundation for the beautifully reclaimed siding, fashioned from corrals of ranches past and given a new life. Standing seam corten steel roofing was added to capture the feel of ranch shed roofs and to accentuate the modern yet industrial vibe. The half-round bonderized, or paint grip, metal gutters offer a throwback to early Montana architecture.

The interior, as Heidi Tate of Tate Interiors explains, was kept as utilitarian and minimal as possible. Materials are purposeful and hearty, much like those on a working ranch. White oak flooring and concrete allow the homeowners guilt-free use of the house, necessary with its proximity to all of the surrounding recreation and outdoor living. Windsor Pinnacle brand windows, specified by Shepard’s Glass in Kalispell, form a sharp corner in the dining area, giving the owners a 180-degree view.

“The interiors should be neutral,” Tate says, “while the views remain the real show-stoppers.”

The bunkroom is the center of the home. Made to sleep six people comfortably, the bunk frames incorporate a modern industrial feel, with raw steel ladders and bed rails designed exclusively by Pohlman and his team. Thoughtfully selected Pendleton bedding, added by Tate, gives the room a classic rustic feel, bringing to mind the traditional bunkhouse and saddle blankets, with a splash of luxury.

The bunkroom flanks the kitchen, providing easy access for a big breakfast before a day of activity. Barstools reminiscent of leather saddles line the island, creating an ideal space to greet the day or relax before hitting the sack. The lantern-like light fixture is thoughtfully placed as to not impede the stunning natural views, while overhead cabinetry is minimal for the same reason.

Bunkhouses of the past would have surely sported a cast-iron potbelly stove to keep the cowboys warm on a cold Montana evening. The teams at Tate Interiors and Mindful Designs worked with the owners to create an updated version. A custom plaster finish by Ozegovich Plastering was used on the fireplace to replicate an unfinished metal. Also carefully planned, wood storage incorporates both form and function. Is it a wood pile or a thoughtful design detail? Both.

Cozy up on the sofa, put your boots on the industrial coffee table and enjoy a roaring fire. The homeowners may not saddle up a horse and hit the trails, but it still feels like they could. Instead, these modern homesteaders swap out their cowboy boots for hiking boots, saddle up their ATVs and hit the dusty trail.

Colton Martini studied architecture at Montana State University and is a principle designer with Sage Interior Design. He can be reached at 406-480-2375, 105A Wisconsin Ave., Whitefish, 101 S. Higgins, Missoula, and www.sage-id.com.