1. The three-story house, set into a slope, is finished with stucco and exposed concrete. A cedar-clad garage and main entry are on the lowest level. A room perched on top provides 360-degree views. 2. One set of glass doors opens onto a natural terrace, while the other offers views of the wider landscape. 3. The kitchen can be easily tucked away after dinner. 4. A woodstove keeps the house warm even on the coldest days.

The Chicago couple bought the 40-acre property near Muscoda, Wisconsin, about three years ago with the idea of using it for outdoor activities they loved—hiking, sledding, perhaps cross-country skiing. Residents of Lake View, they wanted a fresh-air retreat within a four-hour drive of the city.

The first two years found them camping on their grounds, sleeping in a tent and enjoying the great outdoors. But soon, with the birth of their son imminent, the need for an actual house became clear. “We were thinking something supersimple—a place to store things, a bathroom, a sleeping area,” says the husband. “Also, very simple to maintain.”

The property's floor plan
Floor plan: 1. Bedroom 2. Den 3. Stove 4. Curtains 5. Living area 6. Kitchen

Enter architects Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling, partners in a Milwaukee firm with a portfolio of award-winning, green-minded designs. The 880-square-foot modern hillside structure they designed is a triumph of minimalism.

“We thought about the traditional components of cabins—a main house, an outhouse, a toolshed—and how they formed a compound,” Johnsen says. “Then we organized those pieces vertically instead of horizontally in order to tread lightly on the landscape.”

The house is entered on the lowest level, where there are storage and laundry areas, a full bath, and a garage. Above, the main living space has a kitchen at one end and a bedroom and small den at the other; both ends can be concealed behind curtains. Stairs behind the kitchen lead down to the entrance and up to an “observatory” with windows on all sides.

Furnishings are spare and well considered. Molded plywood Eames chairs pair with a West Elm sofa and a shag rug atop the waxed concrete floor. A mahogany table and bench echo the mahogany frames of the oversize windows and custom glass doors, which provide cross-ventilation and eliminate the need for air conditioning.

The house is welcoming year-round. Heat comes courtesy of a rotating Danish woodstove that can be oriented toward the bedroom or the living and dining areas. “We hosted Thanksgiving last year,” the husband says. “In summer, the house is closed in a bit with the trees and leaves, but when the leaves drop, you can see out over the plains. It’s a great view.”

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Buy Guide

Architecture: Brian Johnsen, Sebastian Schmaling, Johnsen Schmaling Architects, 1699 N. Astor St., Milwaukee, 414-287-9000, johnsenschmaling.com.


Photography: John J. Macaulay