Into the Woods

Milwaukee architects craft a stunning lakeside retreat that blends naturally into the rugged hillside setting.

During their first visit Brian Johnsen and Sebas­tian Schmaling began collecting fall leaves from their client John Geiger’s three-acre site on Wis­consin’s Green Lake. The property features 138 feet of lake frontage on the south shore of Nor­wegian Bay, but the land rises steeply from the water’s edge, the buildable area sitting some 122 feet above the deepest waters in the state. The dra­matic topography, great views, and heavily wooded forest raised a fundamental question: How do you modify this stunning piece of nature? “That led to the process of developing a house that could disappear,” Johnsen says. “We wanted to find a meaningful sen­sitivity that married the structure with the natural beauty of the site.”

The initial schemes by the Milwaukee architects were highly conceptual—a series of shadow boxes and collages. Their strategy was to keep the house low and create a dialogue between the horizontality of the building and the verticality of the trees. “They almost work against each other,” Schmaling says of the inherent tension. The partners began calling the project the Camouflage House.

The pair took hundreds of photographs of the trees on-site—stately stands of elm, chestnut, maple, and oak. And while the overall form of the trees led them toward a shape that could invoke the immaterial, it was the raw texture of the bark that established the nature of the materials for the house. “We extracted that to create a unique fingerprint of the house within this environment,” Johnsen says. The leaves they initially collected eventually informed the color palette throughout the home.

Geiger is a Milwaukee financial advisor with lifelong ties to Green Lake. “When I was a child, we’d drive up from Milwaukee and go fishing,” he recalls. “I have great memories of fishing on the lake with my grandfather.” His parents even honeymooned at the lake’s big hotel, the Heidel House Resort. Geiger started searching for property there almost a decade ago. He has been around architecture his entire life, maintaining a partial financial interest in the family business, a Milwaukee blueprint and graphics firm where he started working when he was 11.

Fortunately, he wasn’t looking for a standard lake cottage—which was encouraging since very little lake architecture of quality has been built in Wisconsin since the end of the Jazz Age. “I wanted something with honest materials, open and scaled properly,” he says of his initial aspirations for the project. Geiger was also attuned to the natural beauty of the place: “I wanted to be in that space without touching too much.”

The architects stretched the body of the house—a narrow pavilion more than 80 feet long and 16 feet wide—from east to west along the top of the precipice. A garage sits to the eastern edge of the property with a covered walkway connecting the two volumes. The resulting L-shaped composition forms an entrance courtyard. The descent from the crest of the hill toward the lake actually begins some ways back on the property. On approach through the woods, the visitor is almost level with the roof when the house first comes into view.

The house is divided into two levels: the main living spaces—kitchen, dining, and living rooms—are on the upper level, with bedrooms and the family room built into the side of the hill below. This arrangement minimizes the bulk of the house and keeps the public spaces on the same level as the entrance, where the views are broader and the lakeside windows afford vistas through the tops of the trees on the rapidly falling slope.

Placing the house on the edge of an incline was especially tricky. The natural topography was slightly steeper until it fell off at an almost 45-degree angle. The south wall of the lower level is poured-in-place concrete and the primary foundation for the entire structure. Existing limestone outcroppings at the brow of the hill necessitated some blasting—an unusual excavation requirement for a rural wood-framed 2,400-square-foot home.

“It’s essentially a post-and-beam structure,” John­sen says. Drawing on their initial shadow-box and collage studies, the architects composed the north and south facades as lively asymmetrical volumes that reflect the rhythms and colors of the forest. For all of its visual complexity, only a small number of carefully regulated modules determined the placement of principal design elements. Stick-frame columns march along the north and south faces at four-foot progressions. Vertical cedar boards are the default siding; its natural unstained finish will weather to a subtle gray. The colors the architects identified through their leaf collecting are rep­resented in a series of overlay panels made of Prodema, a resin-based panel product with a natural wood facing that the architects discovered on a trip to Europe some years ago. “Wood stains fade over time,” Schmaling says, adding that the four Pro­dema colors will not. The architects developed the ­colored-panel system with meticulous attention to detail that minimized construction waste. They used only 25 of the deeply stained Prodema panels, specifying the most efficient way for the builder to cut each of the 4-by-8-foot sheets.

The architects chose materials for the interior that would be durable and easy to maintain. “We were trying to get the coziness of a traditional building with a more contemporary set of materials,” Schmaling says. The floors are concrete with an integral terra-cotta hue that was used in every space, including the shower. The interior walls are a medium-density fiberboard (MDF) with a clear-coat finish. “The warmth of the grain pops from the material,” says Schmaling, who describes the resulting color as a warm neutral earth tone. Using 4-by-10-foot sheets of MDF that were larger than the exposed structural system, the designers were able to clad the interior partitions without horizontal joints. A subtle reveal routed into the mater­ial’s edge demonstrates the carpentry skills of a local builder, who was challenged at every turn by the architects’ exacting tolerances.

The idea of camouflage is based on deception: the success of the house lies in its ability to disappear into its setting as well as to withstand close scrutiny as an object in its own right. The paradoxical nature of “building the immaterial” is reflected in the architects’ choices of materials. For all the apparent naturalness of the house, it’s a metaphor rather than an assembly of truly natural components. Resin-based exterior panels, MDF interior walls, glue-laminated timber beams, engineered “stone” countertops—almost every material is a manufactured product that’s been chosen for its “natural” look. The Camouflage House celebrates the tension between the material and immaterial. And as the cedar siding ages, its color will match the surrounding forest while the eccentrically scat­tered Prodema panels will maintain their lively hues. “The house will slowly disappear into this environment,” Johnsen says, “but these mysterious colored panels will just float on the horizon.”

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