A distinctive family cabin designed by AWH Architects opens up to its northern Wisconsin surroundings

By Joel Hoekstra

Olmstead Island has been in Ryan Mallery’s family for several generations. Located on Tomahawk Lake in northern Wisconsin, and reachable only by boat, the 10-acre property feels secluded and private. What’s more, the southern side of the island overlooks state forest lands that can never be developed, adding to the wild allure of the place.

A few small residential structures dot the northern side of the island, but over the years, as the extended family grew, those accommodations became increasingly cramped. Mallery and his wife, Denise, eventually decided to build an additional vacation home on the island. They knew they wanted something that provided ample space yet was fairly simple and sat lightly in the landscape. “We love cabins and being outdoors,” says Mallery. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we have a screened-in house, bringing the outside in and the inside out?’” He sketched some ideas on graph paper and brought them to his friend, Alex Haecker, AIA, owner and namesake of AWH Architects in Minneapolis.

The siting of the structure was particularly important, Haecker realized, if the family wanted to preserve the island’s cozy feel. After some exploration, the architect and his client settled on a flat bench of land on the southern side of the island. A screen of trees would remain between the structure and the shoreline, preserving the natural feel of the place, but sunshine—as well as light reflected off the lake’s surface—would still reach the house and its interior most days.

Using Mallery’s sketches, Haecker and colleague John Greene evolved a simple structure: a 20-by-64-foot, shotgun-style cabin topped by a soaring, cantilevered shed roof and ringed by an expansive porch-like deck. The exterior, largely clad in Shou Sugi Ban (charred) douglas fir, is dark, while the interior is bright, the walls and ceiling covered in birch ply with a pickled (whitewashed) finish. Inside, the nine enormous beams that support the roof are painted dark; outside, where they support a five-foot overhang that shelters the house, they’re light-colored. The contrast draws attention to the simple elegance of the structure.

The house rests on 18 wooden posts and Diamond Pier footings, appearing to float above the forest floor. “The clients wanted to leave the gentlest permanent footprint possible, in case future generations choose to use the site in a different way,” says Haecker. “If this structure were removed, there would be little indication it was ever there.” (The design also meant that no excavating equipment needed to reach the island, avoiding a potential logistics problem.)

Inside, most of the square footage is devoted to common areas. There are two bedrooms and a bathroom at one end of the house, but more than half of the floor plan is open, with the kitchen, the dining and living area, and a wide hall with seating all contiguous. Most of the southern exposure is windows and sliding glass doors, as well as a few hinged doors that can be folded out of view.

In summer, when the doors are open and furniture is placed on the deck, the line between inside and out is truly blurred. “It really feels like we’re living outdoors,” says Mallery. “The light reflects off the lake, and you can feel the breeze in every space.” It’s the kind of experience that makes his family appreciate the beauty of the island even more—and want to preserve it for generations to come.

Location: Minocqua, Wisconsin
Clients: Ryan and Denise Mallery
Architect: AWH Architects
General contractor: Thompson Construction of Minocqua, Inc.
Size: 1,200 square feet
Cost: $425,000
Completion: July 2017
Photographer: Peter J. Sieger