March 7, 2022: “On the boards” is designer-speak for “whatcha working on?” Since I began building my first Poem Home in 2018, I’ve had the opportunity to design 6 new super-insulated homes for my clients. Each one reflects their unique place in the world and their owner’s design sensibility.
Up north, overlooking a pristine lake (a God’s Drop if you think like Thoreau), an iconic-looking summer camp is taking shape. This stunner is not only complex and a serious undertaking, but also being built almost entirely by the owners, a couple who are truly living their dream. This home has 2×6 framing and 4 inches of sheet foam for an R-40 wall.
Further south and situated along a quiet street in a mid-size city, will soon be an accessible home for a single retiree. It’s an R-45 double 2×4 wall house on a slab, with an R-60 vaulted ceiling in the great room. The design is modern and bold, with a single concrete pillar holding up the front porch.
Overlooking the fields and forests of central Wisconsin, a simple and sturdy home will be built by a capable couple with young children. It’s also a double wall house on a slab with a vaulted ceiling. The exterior will be clad in “barn steel” and the south facing windows will be shaded by a wood post & beam “rooflet”. At one end of the house is a 3-season room with bi-pass windows that can be thrown open in good weather.
When you have an alley behind your house and you need a garage and a workshop, why not also add solar panels, a hot-tub deck, and guest quarters? This double wall house on an ICF (insulated concrete form) foundation with a vaulted ceiling and triple-pane windows will meet the highest standards of energy-efficiency. It will be a place for fun, family, friends, and projects.
A lovely meadow overlooking a quaint town is the perfect place to be. This home will be enjoyed by the owners as a second home and also rented out to the many tourists who frequent the nearby art galleries. The design is an almost-replica of the Poem Home in Spring Green, except the second bedroom and bath are in the lower level. This home will easily achieve net-zero.
Could it be a trend? This ambitious young couple are going to “GC” (general contract) and do most of the work to construct their own home. Located down a country lane and overlooking the Wisconsin River Valley, it will make an enviable retreat from the world. My clients came to me with a well thought out floor plan, a building section, and a list of specifications that needed only a little refinement on my part. It has 2×6 walls with 4″ of sheet foam on the exterior, an ICF foundation, and high-heeled roof trusses for all-around really great R-value.
Do you know someone (maybe you?) who’s thinking about a new house and understands that we really can do better than conventional construction? I have a wealth of knowledge and experience that I’m happy to share, in whatever way is most helpful. Let’s get in touch!
January 14, 2022: I’m thrilled to be included in Zero Energy Project’s newsletter with my article “My Net Zero Home Got Me Through a Wisconsin Winter-Here’s What I Learned”.
Zero Energy Project has tons of good information about how to improve our built environment, and a “zero energy home professionals near you” search option. Did you know there are only 9 zero energy projects listed within 100 miles of Madison? People, we need to get going!
I’m going to be taking a deep dive into their articles on zero carbon building. Instead of just looking at operational costs like we do with “net zero”, “zero carbon” looks at the embodied energy of the materials used to make the building. Stay tuned: if I can figure out the math, I’ll let you know how I came out on that score.
September 27, 2021: Flowers and vegetables run riot right outside the back door captures the essence of the way I want to live. I gave my long-time neighbor and friend Lew Lama of Wood & Stone Works free reign—but for a few flags stuck in the ground where I envisioned a walled garden. It all started when a dump truck off-loaded a few boulders found on a farm in nearby Ridgeway. Then, salvaged barn foundation stones and other stones of mixed provenance snagged on the cheap as overage from Lew’s other projects. These were sorted and stacked for bottom layer, middle layer and cap layer. Loads of crushed limestone, washed river stone, and assorted fill material stood at the ready.
The wall rose steadily, battered back and keyed together to reach a string line set at house grade. The boulders anchored the corners and mid-points, only later revealing themselves to be steps. Large stones were set on the diagonal. Smaller stones filled in and arched over.
Chunks of old lime mortar and patches of lime-wash told the story. Shell fossils were found. Finally, the cap—a rhythm of cut stones and rough stones—a handy walkway from one end of riotous garden to the other. Thank you Lew for this sublime creation that may very well outlast the house!
I wondered how we might use up some long and stout but too-wavy pine boards—left-overs from the loft build. After I over-filled the garden with topsoil, I needed a way to contain it on the house side. My friend Marken D’elene of Savanna SG figured out a fast, simple, cheap, and reversible way to hold back the soil—he simply set the boards on edge, ran a few screws down, and anchored them with 3 foot long steel form stakes (already black). He charred the back side of the boards with a blow torch, an ancient Japanese method of preserving wood called Shou sugi ban. There’s a pleasing unity of form and material as you gaze out to the garden while tucked into the loft. You see knotty pine and you see black bars.
When I was planning the house, I hadn’t fully appreciated how much we would end up using the north facing breezeway. Sitting there and even walking back and forth from garage to house felt too exposed to the neighboring house. I had intentionally set the garage wall close to the north setback line to maximize my south yard and to extend views from my mostly south-facing windows—-but now it felt like a mistake.
My solution was a 1×4 pine board privacy screen, gapped to match the roof soffit. Little did I realize how bouncy and insubstantial the boards would be when spanning the 10 feet between posts nor how my carefully planned gaps disappeared when one board bowed down and the next one bowed up. I called my good friend Mark Morgan of Bearpaw Design and Construction in a semi-panic, but he had a solution right away: get a strip of screen molding and weave it through the boards.
Like magic, the whole thing stiffened and the inconsistent gaps became lost in the overall pattern. The screen has become one of our favorite features of the house—it gives privacy while still offering ground-views and sky-peaks, it adds a subtle texture, and it feels enclosed in a breezy-like way. Thank you Mark for always having a good idea!
The last and final project for Poem Homes 2020 was a shade trellis over the patio door. The design was worked out between me and Bob Rowen of Rowen Electric before the walls were enclosed. We knew we had to get some blocking between the studs at the appropriate height.
The idea was to use steel for the structure and boards for the shade in a way that the boards could be switched out when they eventually rotted. Bob devised a simple scheme using angle iron and flat bars that uses a minimal amount of material—stainless steel is expensive but worth it because it will never rust. The design repeats several features found in the loft—suspending a structure from above and the use of angle iron.
I doodled iterations in SketchUp until we had something we liked. The steel was cut, drilled, and installed by Mark and Joel Morgan of Bearpaw Design and Construction. Luscious lengths of 2×6 cedar were spaced and bolted to the bottom flange of the steel brackets. When the sun shines, a lovely pattern of stripes are cast on the Living Room slab. Really beautiful!
September 27, 2021: A few years ago I clipped a quote from Dwell magazine that helped me better understand what I was thinking about with Poem Homes. Founder Lara Deam put forward that “modern” isn’t a style.
“Modern is a way of communicating with our culture and attempting to make our dreams—big and small—come true. While I love a flat roof as much as the next person, modern isn’t just about design details. Nor is it necessarily a way to live with less or build more cheaply—although both are worthy goals. Modernism is an exploration of authenticity, materials, and function; it involves problem solving, testing different ideas, and expressing a little idiosyncrasy. Most important, it’s about work that responds to the time in which we live.”Lara Deam, founder of Dwell
I’ll add to that: Modernism is about building a community of makers—traditional tradespeople and freelance craftspeople who come together to test their skills and try something new.
I no longer notice it, but my visitors do: the house is infused with the scent of fresh wood. The loft was built from a towering white pine that was felled just a few blocks away. My friend Jim Birkemeier of Spring Green Timber Growers cut and milled the wood, set it to dry in his solar kilns, and rough sawed it into the 2×6 joists and 2×8 ledgers I needed for this project. I left it raw and unfinished: random smudges and strap marks still show. A big thank you to Bob Rowen of Rowen Electric for masterminding the build.
Leftovers were used for the kitchen’s floating shelves. My finish carpenter and friend Eric Wallner of WALLNER DESIGN-BUILD and I brainstormed the idea of hooking the ends around the drywall window jambs and setting one shelf high and one shelf low.
Window sills are extra-thick planks of rough-sawn cedar (ordered from the lumberyard). They visually extend to the exterior sill that acts as a drip cap above the course of lower lap siding. Ditto for the door jambs—a visual trick that channels Frank Lloyd Wright who famously set panes of glass into grooves cut into stone to “dissolve” the barrier between indoors and out. I was adamant about keeping the texture, but Eric wisely counseled that a light skip-sanding would take down the splinters. A damp cloth run over the surface is all that’s needed to wipe away dust.
The rustic nature of the loft and cedar trims contrast with shinier finishes and materials worked smooth by the human hand. The windows are wrapped in drywall, which slots into an integral black plastic channel (called a sheetrock return) for a look that’s clean and shadow-free—and much cheaper than the more conventional wood frame.
Interior doors are off-the-shelf birch veneer single panel prehungs from made-in-America Koch Doors. The engineered wood cores are “CARB phase II compliant” for reduced formaldehyde emissions and the finish is low VOC. The jambs, casing, and adjacent baseboard are finger-jointed poplar, primed in the factory and finished on site with non-toxic, zero-VOC Ecos Paint in the same white as the walls (but one step up in sheen). I like how the casing and baseboard blend into the walls and allow the doors and their black hinges to pop. I’m grateful to Eric for his sure hand and keen eye—each reveal is perfect.
Eric also built the ladder, the refrigerator panel, and the loft window seat. I fiddled around on SketchUp until I got a design I liked.
Eric refined the details (some of which are best felt, not seen) and rightly insisted on an inset skid strip at the front edge of each tread. The ladder is made from stock 2×6 Doug Fir and the handles are from Bold Manufacturing and Supply.
A pet peeve (designers relish pet peeves) are bulky refrigerators. With my budget, I couldn’t consider a cabinet-depth refrigerator or even an attractive one that could stand on its own merits. Instead, I asked Eric for a plywood wrap that would complement the unit he built for the entryway. He devised this attractive and smooth-as-silk built-in in a way that can be minimally altered should the refrigerator be replaced with a larger one. He used 3/4” thick 11 ply formaldehyde-free Purebond birch plywood, tweaking the design and edge-gluing where needed to minimize waste. A not-to-be-underestimated advantage of a refrigerator panel is that it eliminates a crumb gap.
Throughout the build, I stacked siding cut-offs and 2x scraps in the garage and it was to this pile that I directed Eric when it came time to build the 27 foot long window seat along the back side of the loft (He did have to pick up a few sheets of plywood). His design is simple and elegant. The seat floats above the mechanical chase and juts back at the ends to create tabletops. Custom cushions were too pricey, so after some online searching I found narrow futons (sold as RV mattresses) with a non-toxic mix of cotton and poly fibers, wrapped in a zippered cotton canvas. What was a walk-through space is now transformed into a place to read and lounge and gaze down at the garden.
A small home like mine can live bigger with a few sleight of hands. My good friend Megan Fields of Rivendell Design Works sewed a curtain that when drawn back—voila!—reveals the washer. What was a small passageway between bedroom and bath becomes a generous working area for laundry sorting. Thank you Megan for finding just the right shade of blue!
Dining in semi-darkness began to seem normal, even inevitable. I couldn’t find a light fixture I liked or could afford. In stepped dear friend Cait Boldt who scoured resale shops for just the right piece at just the right price. The texture, color, and vibe go with the other objets d’art that came with me from my old house. Cait also found several new paintings and photos for my collection.
I like to think that my house is, like Lara Deam says, authentic and a little idiosyncratic. It’s a home that reflects me and my problem-solving and color-chosing and proportion-deciding friends. I’m deeply grateful.