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A Rustic Wisconsin Retreat

As if channeling the jazz cats of yore, today’s youth are all about vibes, trying to name a fleeting feeling or aura. Rural Retreat, a hilltop home in the Driftless Area of ​​Wisconsin, lends an ambience of sublime fulfillment.

If the 3,000 square foot structure evokes the feel of a freshly baked baguette – a rough exterior that gives way to a plush interior – that’s because it incorporates two of the attributes most prized by owners Chris Palm and Johanna Stirling as they looked to build their weekend.

The couple wanted to create an environmentally sustainable home that used as many reclaimed materials as possible. They also wanted the place to feel warm, as they plan to create memories there for generations.

Sustainable lifestyle

Namely, the house has reclaimed ipe wood walls from a freeway sound barrier in Chicago. And Douglas fir, prized for its strength and durability, is used for the posts, ceilings and trim, its orange and gladiolus color adding to the look.

“It looks rough and rustic on the outside, but it’s modern with lots of glass on the inside,” Palm said of the home. “Building it only took a few years of my life, but it was worth it.”

Winner of the Home of the Month competition sponsored by the Star Tribune and AIA Minnesota (American Institute of Architects), the project began in 2017 on land that Palm and Stirling acquired just 20 minutes from where Stirling grown up. The area – 3.5 hours southeast of the Twin Cities – is famous for its varied landscapes and microclimates prized by organic farmers.

The couple lived in Minneapolis at the time and often dined at their favorite restaurant, Tilia, which is near the office of architect Mark Larson, co-founder of Rehkamp Larson Architects. They looked it up online and were impressed.

Homeowners and designers set out to map out a home that was sustainability conscious yet durable and ready for large groups of friends. It must have been a farm cabin in the countryside – there were no lakes or rivers to see – with the horizon as the vantage point.

An eye on efficiency

One of the main challenges was not building more than necessary, Larson said.

“We were careful how we allocated space – looking for spatial efficiency.”

In the main area, all the rooms are open to each other, creating easy circulation and giving the impression of expecting gatherings. Easy access to outdoor spaces also makes the house ideal for get-togethers.

The living room has a wood burning stove. The floor is relatively small. And the rooms are modest in size. Douglas fir turned out to be aesthetically ideal.

“We were looking for warmth throughout the house, but we didn’t want it to be old-fashioned or cute,” Larson said.

Stylistically, the house has vernacular farmhouse origins, though it departs from the classic white farmhouse. With its stonewashed exterior, it blurs the lines between rural and urban, rustic and modern. And Larson and his team, which includes Laurel Johnston and Ryan Bicek, were keen to emphasize the connection between the outdoors and the indoors, with exterior cladding carried throughout the structure.

For the roof, the design team opted for a painted steel that easily sheds rain and snow and lasts a long time. It reflects heat in the summer and could potentially be recycled at the end of its life. And the base of the house is wrapped in Corten steel that will take on a rusty patina with age.

“It’s a series of three sheds, sort of,” Larson said. “It’s a healthy and interesting tension between the raw and the finished.”

An active family

Both active and athletic, Palm and Stirling met at Macalester College, where he played basketball, football and tennis and she played Frisbee. He is in finance and real estate. She’s a health care professional. The couple have three children – Annika, 11; Navy, 9 years old; and Anders, 5 – all of whom love football and skiing.

When the pandemic shut everything down, they retreated to their farm, spending 2.5 months working and learning remotely.

“I love waking up in the morning looking at a field and forest covered in fog with the sunrise,” Stirling said. “It’s magical and serene.”

Although the house has lots of glass, it is neutral. Design choices included triple-glazed windows and lots of insulation, so that heat from the south spreads north of the house. Solar panels for energy have also been drawn into the plan.

The family signed up for the conservation reserve program, with 40 acres dedicated to monarch butterfly habitat. Palm has also started tapping maple trees and expects to bottle 300 gallons of maple syrup from 700 trees this year.

All of this activity – and the feelings and memories that flow from it – swirl around their retreat, which Palm describes as a piece of paradise.

“There’s a spring-fed lazy stream nearby and we’ve been tubing in it for hours,” Palm said. “It’s unique and quite special.”

About this project

Sustainable, raw new materials and salvaged objects have been used to create a rural retreat amidst farmland and river valley in Southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Zone.

Design firm: Rehkamp Larson Architects.

Group project: Mark Larson, AIA; Laurel Johnston, AIA; Ryan Bicek, AIA.

Project partners: Bad Ax Log Homes & Supply, General Contractor: Brooke Voss Interior Design, Interior Designer.

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