SALA Architects designs an indoor/outdoor summer retreat in Wisconsin for a Chicago family

By Joel Hoekstra

The 40-acre property on a lake in northwestern Wisconsin had been in a Chicago couple’s family since the 1930s. It was a place where siblings and cousins came to connect and relax every summer. But the old house built on the land was beginning to burst at the seams. The couple decided to purchase another lot on the lake and erect a retreat with more space.

Seeking an architect who had worked in the area, they learned of SALA Architects, a Minnesota firm with a reputation for award-winning cabin design. They were especially drawn to the work of David O’Brien Wagner, AIA, whose modern designs for homes in the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest all seemed to achieve a unique harmony with their settings.

“The clients wanted something modern, but not modern with a capital M,” says Wagner. In Chicago, the couple had lived in a succession of several renovated historic homes. They wanted to try something contemporary and new.

Wagner responded with a scheme that maximizes views of the lake: a low-slung row of three boxes connected by passageways. Broken into smaller volumes, the 2,300-square-foot retreat appears more transparent and less imposing than a more traditionally massed home. The lake side of the house is almost entirely glass. “We wanted to break down the sense of indoor and outdoor spaces, putting the family directly into nature,” says Wagner.

Visitors approaching the residence first glimpse a series of panels—some composed of cedar slats and some of corrugated metal, both set horizontally, emphasizing the home’s low profile. A flat roof with overhangs reinforces the sense of a sheltered hideaway, while large windows create curated views into the main living space and beyond to the lake. The main entry is tucked behind a cedar screen, signaling to all who enter that the home has no designs on traditional architectural grandeur.

“We like how it feels when there’s just the two of us there. It doesn’t feel too big,” says one of the homeowners. “But when there’s eight of us up there, it doesn’t feel too small, either. It’s turning out to be a wonderful family gathering place.”

The centerpiece of the residence is a great room with a high ceiling supported by steel beams. The steel supports combine with burnished concrete floors and a Rumford fireplace clad in black tile to lend an industrial feel to the space, but pine window frames and comfortable furnishings soften the overall tone. Tall banks of clean-lined wood cabinetry conceal kitchen storage and provide alcove seating. When the weather permits, a bank of folding glass doors can be opened for true indoor/outdoor living.

Private spaces—bedrooms, bathrooms, and personal storage—lie to the north and south of the great room. One cluster is reached via a breezeway that doubles as a screened-in porch, the other via a glass-lined link off the entry space. A visual through-line extends from one end of the house to the other, and the owners have plans to build an additional box along the spine—a guest room on stilts. Unlike the existing wings, the future addition will nestle privately into a copse of oak, birch, and aspen trees.

“With the building broken up into a series of boxes spaced apart from one another, you have the opportunity to look across from one space to another, see the landscape flowing in between, and gain awareness of your relationship to the site and place,” says Wagner.

Location: Northern Wisconsin
Architect: SALA Architects
Project lead designer: David O’Brien Wagner, AIA
Energy modeling: SALA Architects
Landscape designers: SALA Architects; Winter Greenhouse
General contractor: Tworek Construction
Size: 2,300 square feet
Completion: May 2018
Photographer: Paul Crosby