johnsen schmaling architects, milwaukee

Every once in a while, an architectural perfect storm occurs. A series of favorable circumstances—a gifted architect, a beautiful site, a thoughtful client—coincide in one project, leading to a sublime synthesis of design, surroundings, and program. That's exactly what happened with this weekend home for a Milwaukee family in Green Lake, Wis. Brian Johnsen, AIA, and Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, spent a year taking trips to the wooded, lakeside site two hours from their Milwaukee office. They absorbed the property's every nuance, from the bark patterns on the trees to the colors of the leaves at different times of the year. The scheme they created reflects those nuances so completely that the residential architect Design Awards judges voted it Project of the Year. “They couldn't have solved this better in terms of the relationship to the site,” said one juror. “They took an idea and ran with it,” added another.

The two-story home's layout is simple: two bars, laid perpendicularly to one another. Johnsen and Schmaling tucked the lower, bedroom level into a steep hillside and placed the public rooms upstairs. The project's linear forms highlight the judges' favorite feature—an exterior envelope of cedar and glass interspersed with Prodema, a wood-veneer product containing a resin-bonded cellulose core. The Prodema panels, whose varying colors match the seasonally changing leaves, sit about 4 inches forward for a layering effect.

The vertical orientation of each façade element mirrors the solids and voids created by the surrounding trees. “Not only were we creating a structure that attempts to assimilate into the environment, we were also concerned with how, over time, this house could become more intimate with its site,” Johnsen explains. “The body of the structure—the vertical tongue-and-groove cedar—will silver over time. And then the elevated Prodema skin ties the house to the ever-changing seasons.”

Within its striking enclosure, the house continues to immerse its dwellers in the immediate natural environment. Windows extend from the concrete floors all the way up to the clear-sealed MDF ceilings to maximize lake and forest views. Folding glass doors transform a screened porch into an extension of the main living space. On the lower level, varied-width strips of cedar embedded in an exposed-concrete retaining wall recall the woods outside. Traditional items interpreted in a modern manner, such as exposed beams of engineered wood and a steel-clad central fireplace, update the lake cottage vernacular.

“The design is all about the experiences you will have in this house,” Johnsen says. “The idea was that the house would be totally unique and different from any other building you will be in.”

principals in charge / project architects / landscape designers / interior designers: Brian Johnsen, AIA, and Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, Johnsen Schmaling Architects
general contractor: Jesse Burg, Gale Burg Construction, Malone, Wis.
project size: 2,700 square feet
site size: 2.5 acres
construction cost: $260 per square foot
photography: Johnsen Schmaling Architects, except where noted