Minnesotans and Wisconsinites love their lake cottages, but a good number also retreat to the countryside for their downtime—Donna Brogan and her husband, Bert Hodous, among them. Inspired by the rolling hills of western Wisconsin, they opted for a farm near Blair (population 2,400). But Brogan, a self-employed cabinetmaker, and Hodous, a family physician, enjoyed entertaining, gardening, and husbanding chickens and Corriedale sheep so much that they soon decided to make the farm their primary residence.
What had been a charming 1920s farmhouse for weekend adventures became a little unwieldy for everyday living, with a single bathroom, poor insulation, and 1970s-era interiors. Brogan and Hodous asked St. Paul, Minn.–based Alchemy Architects for help, having worked with Alchemy principal Geoffrey Warner, AIA, on other projects (including their primary residence). Warner is also the creator of the weeHouse (weehouse.com), an eco-friendly prefabricated structure available throughout the United States and Canada. “We love Geoff’s fresh take on homey, basic materials used in very innovative ways,” Brogan says.
After viewing the property, and touring old and crumbling area barns of the area, Warner came up with a twist on the 19th-century vernacular barn typology: wrapping the house in rough-sawn slats of local white oak in a way that mimics the organic sagging of an aging wooden structure. “The idea of wrapping the house in barn boards is an adaptation of the trend towards rainscreen façades,” Warner says.
Inside the main living spaces, Warner inserted one steel and one hardwood volume, at the top of which rests an airy master bedroom suite and reading area. With the living and dining areas below, the effect is of a hayloft and granary floor. Warner also designed so-called “bag lights” (inspired by methane-capture balloons tethered inside local dairy barns), which are raised and lowered on a rope-and-pulley system. The shade is composed of two layers of insect screen to create a moiré pattern against bare dimmable fluorescent bulbs.
Brogan paneled interior walls with salvaged hardwoods, and furnished the home with her own custom dining table, sideboard, sink and tub surrounds, and headboards.
The ground-floor kitchen is illuminated with borrowed natural light from a second-floor window floating down from a cutback in the ceiling. Guest rooms are positioned just below grade, and ramps, not steps, provide another barn reference while creating universal accessibility. Low-tech galvanized steel awnings protect the main entry and the horizontal slice of windows on the main floor. A giant awning panel cut out of the south façade porch siding is operated by a boat winch. The west-facing porch has barn doors that slide open for the breeze, and when closed act as a screen to prevent heat gain and glow in the afternoon sun.
Along with the original farmhouse and an existing barn that serves as Brogan’s studio, the house shares hot-water heat from a wood-burning furnace and a trenched geothermal system. White thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) roofing reflects the sun and slopes subtly to an integral gutter and downspout that funnel rainwater into a garden cistern. Concrete thermal mass floors with in-floor heat, insulated R-35 walls, and an R-50 roof, as well as a heat-recovery ventilator, help keep interior temperatures consistent during Wisconsin’s extreme climate swings. A few large windows evoke traditional barn apertures and are strategically placed to avoid heat gain in the summer and winter heat loss. “Wintering here is fantastic,” Brogan says. “The sun is screened during the summer, but reaches all the way across to the far wall in the winter.”
The total cost of construction was $360,000, but low energy bills and the reported delight of the neighbors are favorable outcomes. Blair BarnHouse also garnered a 2010 AIA Minnesota Honor Award and, this year, a prestigious AIA National Housing Award. Hodous says that the project inspires him to be more innovative and playful in everything he does. “I would like to see more of these kinds of inventive things that utilize technology for fun and fuel efficiency,” he says. “I feel very proud about that.”