Photography: Werner Straube; Styling: Diane Ewing

Bill Bickford’s modern family retreat blends into its agrarian setting.

ARCHITECT: Bill Bickford
LOCATION: Southwest Wisconsin

How do you put a modern, solar-powered house on 200 acres of farmland and not have it look alien, as if a spaceship had landed amid the corn? Make it look like a barn.

That became the operating principle for architect Bill Bickford, of Northworks Architects & Planners, when his clients, an Evanston couple with two school-age kids, asked him for a contemporary-style second home that was respectful of its surroundings. (The husband’s family has owned this land, 50 miles outside Madison, for 25 years.)

“The most inspiring aspect of this project was the site—the old barn that was there, the silos in the far distance, the rolling hills. We didn’t want to interrupt that setting in any way," Bickford says.

Instead, he and general contractor Tim Marr created an entirely new structure next to the foundation of the original 1880s barn, which was disassembled. The result is a spacious, light-filled house that can accommodate as many as 14 people overnight.

Sliding glass doors flank back-to-back fireplaces. When open, the doors tuck into a pocket between the two hearths.

A new garage and a few original outbuildings form a backdrop for the pool area.

The new construction’s scale, proportions, and materials echo (by exacting design) those of the original structure. The barn’s foundation became retaining walls by the pool. Red-painted cedar siding and a tin-coated copper roof complete the look—from a distance, the new house looks like a traditional barn.

Up close, though, there’s no question that it’s a smart modern home. "We maximized the views," says Bickford. "And the house functions in the most low-maintenance, energy-efficient way possible."

The owners love that they don’t have high heating bills (thanks to solar panels in a soybean field south of the house), don’t have to worry about water damage (the steel exterior framing withstands all weather), and, most of all, that "every window perfectly frames an incredible view of the land," says the wife. “I don’t know if Bill realizes this, but it’s amazing."

Certainly it was all part of his grand plan.

The husband made the light fixture over the table out of raw steel pipes; a friend made the table from planks salvaged from the old barn.

An eco-friendly steel fan hangs over the loft, which includes the master suite and a small office.

The lowest level of the house—where kids’ and guests’ quarters are—gets light and cross-ventilation from windows on two sides.