Two architects and a small team of artisans craft an unforgettable outbuilding in a Northern Minnesota forest

By Christopher Hudson

When Minneapolis architects Kara Hill, AIA, and Loren Ahles, FAIA, bought 80 acres of red-pine forest in Togo, on the edge of Minnesota’s Iron Range, design inspiration for the structures they wanted to build was everywhere they looked. Just about every backyard contained a stack of cedar logs, and every timber truck carried one.

And the closer Hill and Ahles looked at the logs, the more inspired they got. “I’m so seduced by the flares—the log ends. So many of them have three prongs and a back, just like dinosaur feet,” says Hill. “And when you get close enough to see the rings, you start counting. You can’t help it. You start counting the years.”

A permanent storage building was their first need—ahead of a boathouse and a studio—and they decided on a prefab Quonset hut because of its ease of construction and maintenance and its snow-load strength. But the Q, as they call it, would have an arrestingly distinctive feature: freestanding end walls composed of three-foot-long cedar logs stacked with the ends facing out, set in mortar. The walls would be inset to create a simple porch at each end—and to protect the wood from the elements.

Hill and Ahles are do-it-yourselfers, so they bolted the Quonset-hut panels together and erected the shell themselves, with help from family members. For excavation, the concrete foundation, the welding of two raw-steel doors, and the all-important walls, they turned to Togo neighbor and logger Erik Nelson and a small group of local artisans, all with rich sensibilities about wood and steel.

The team approached the construction of the log walls as they would a stone wall, taking care with the fit of each piece and adding sawdust to the mortar to better accommodate the expansion and contraction of the wood. “I didn’t sit there like a film director yelling ‘Cut! Cut! Cut!’” Hill says with a laugh. “But sometimes I’d be trimming trees nearby, and they’d give me a look that said, ‘We don’t know where to put this log.’ So we’d try some things and look at them together, and then they’d mortar the logs in. It took a few weeks.”

The end result is a structure that radiates the imagination and craftsmanship that went into its making. There’s also something magical about the Q’s juxtaposition of industry and nature—of thin, smooth steel and thick, textured logs. “People just show up to see it, because they’ve heard about it from a family member or friend,” says Hill. “I have more privacy in the middle of downtown Minneapolis than I do in Togo.”

“These projects up here have allowed me to step back as an architect,” she continues. “I needed to step back to understand what I want to do, and what it means to design in Minnesota today, and in a place like Togo. The people we’re working with are all from this area, and I can learn so much from them. The materials are from here—even the steel for the Quonset hut. It’s just really fun to give yourself the puzzle of how to get as much of what you need from as close to you as possible.”

Location: Togo, Minnesota
Clients: Kara Hill, AIA; Loren Ahles, FAIA
Architect: Kara Hill Studio
Design team: Kara Hill, AIA; Loren Ahles, FAIA
Project partners: Nelson Wood Products; ADT Contracting, LLC; SteelMaster Buildings
Photographer: Loren Ahles, FAIA

“I really appreciated the combination of using off-the-shelf products—the roofing system and the skylights—and juxtaposing them with the hand-labored wood end walls. The image that shows how one of the flares at the bottom expresses itself within the constraints of that wall just captures the magic of the idea for me.”
—Mimi Hoang, AIA