written by:
January 16, 2009
Originally published in Home at Last
Designed by his son and daughter-in-law, and largely built by his family and a host of neighborly helpers, Bill Weber’s new home is all about strengthening the ties that bind.
weber house midwest view field
The Weber residence sits comfortably in the rich, green Wisconsin valley.
1 / 12
Modern house in Black Earth, Wisconsin
The home is clad in galvanized corrugated metal.
2 / 12
Bill Weber built his home while serving as his own general contractor.
Bill Weber built his home while serving as his own general contractor.
3 / 12
Light pours into the combined living, dining, and kitchen space at the front of the house. Antique furnishings are offset by the striking Pendant 169 lamp by Danish architect Poul Christiansen for Le Klint.
Light pours into the combined living, dining, and kitchen space at the front of the house. Antique furnishings are offset by the striking Pendant 169 lamp by Danish architect Poul Christiansen for Le Klint.
4 / 12
The residence features quiet, poetic spaces, such as the kitchen.
The residence features quiet, poetic spaces, such as the kitchen.
5 / 12
Clear, minimal lines define the residence’s cabinetry and fenestration. Furnishings include the Nelson Platform bench by Herman Miller.
Clear, minimal lines define the residence’s cabinetry and fenestration. Furnishings include the Nelson Platform bench by Herman Miller.
6 / 12
The home’s windows perfectly frame views of the neighboring sights.
The home’s windows perfectly frame views of the neighboring sights.
7 / 12
A hallway lined with windows provides a distinctive gateway to the bedroom.
A hallway lined with windows provides a distinctive gateway to the bedroom.
8 / 12
A half floor upstairs overlooks the spacious living area where Bill and his sons relax.
A half floor upstairs overlooks the spacious living area where Bill and his sons relax.
9 / 12
Bill Weber and sons Nick and Wyatt (left) relax on the home’s deck.
Bill Weber and sons Nick and Wyatt (left) relax on the home’s deck.
10 / 12
Antique furnishings in a Black Earth, Wisconsin, home
Structural timbers were salvaged from a local industrial building and demarcate the change in flooring surfaces.
11 / 12
The rear of the house, which could have been treated as an afterthought given the project’s minimal budget, is instead a lively essay in form and color.
The rear of the house, which could have been treated as an afterthought given the project’s minimal budget, is instead a lively essay in form and color.
12 / 12
weber house midwest view field
The Weber residence sits comfortably in the rich, green Wisconsin valley.
Project 
Weber Residence

About 200 miles northwest of Chicago, the quiet farming village of Black Earth, Wisconsin, is a picturesque patchwork of rolling hills and dairy farms—and an unlikely place to find a modernist residence.

Yet in a beautiful valley, tucked against a small wooded hill, a strikingly contemporary home leaps from the countryside like a loose steer. Bright and angular, the home is a visual jolt from the heartland’s architectural vernacular of farmhouses, sheds, and silos.

And the house holds another surprise. The 1,200-square-foot home with its soaring interior space and finely turned materials was built for $180,000—about the price of a typical vinyl-sided single-family home in nearby Madison (and, seemingly, everywhere else in the United States).

Bill Weber, the 56-year-old proprietor of a furniture manufacturing and upholstering business in nearby Fitchburg, had always wanted to build his own house. Making his dream come true was a family affair. Bill acted as his own general contractor. His son and daughter-in-law, Jonas and Danika Weber—both young architectural designers—designed the home for free. “I was along for the ride,” claims Bill’s son Nick, a medical student in Chicago. Bill’s youngest son, Wyatt, a University of Minnesota student, pitched in as well. Family members, friends, neighbors and Bill himself put in untold hours of labor to complete the project, doing everything from hoisting timber beams to tiling the home’s floors.

“You find ways to save,” says Bill.

Having the design fees and a part-time construction crew donated was a huge break. Still, the Weber house underscores the fact that great design can be made affordable with planning, sacrifice, and some sweat equity.

The idea of building the house had been hanging around the Weber family since Jonas was an architecture student back in the 1990s. The discussion became more serious after Jonas and Danika married in 2003 and soon became collaborators on the project. “It was kind of a step into the unknown,” Jonas recalls.

Jonas handled most of the design duties, but consulted with Danika, who had more residential design experience. “She was my sounding board on design,” he says. “She would help me to see what decisions were good and what decisions needed to be left out.”

The pair originally budgeted the house at $130,000, but the bottom line crept up on them. “This tends to happen with all single-family home [construction],” Jonas admits. “The budget grows from what was imagined.”

But the project was able to benefit from two important savings: Bill already owned the site, having lived there for years in a mobile home, and he decided to act as his own general contractor, which included hiring the subcontractors and working with Jonas and Danika on creating an appropriate timetable for the work. To keep costs down even more, the Webers also calculated donated and bartered labor into the equation.

Construction began auspiciously in spring 2004, with the erection of a stone retaining wall against the hillside next to the house. But the southern Wisconsin area received major rainfall that season that fed several natural water springs inside the hill.

“These ephemeral springs were spouting out through the retaining wall,” Bill recalls. Jonas and Danika had flown in from San Francisco to kick off the project and help with construction, but there was little to do for two weeks other than shovel out mud and muck in the rain.

Once the rain showers stopped, a geotechnical engineer was called in to assess the ground conditions and to help figure out construction methods that would keep the house safe and dry. “We eventually got the encouragement we needed,” says Jonas.

The project hit another setback months later when the furniture company that had employed Bill for 27 years went out of business right in the middle of construction. Bill, along with some of the company’s other employees, ended up buying the business and saving it. “Now I needed the business to succeed in order to keep the house,” says Bill. “That meant some weeks I was working 60 hours.”

Still, people rallied around the project. “This house was somewhat of a positive catalyst in Bill’s life,” Danika says. A neighbor, LaVerne Holler, who is a master carpenter, pitched in to help solve construction problems and take up a share of the backbreaking work. Danika calls Holler “a driving force” in the creation of the house. Bill reports that Holler helped erect—by hand—the massive timbers that frame the house, using a ladder to hoist them in place. “He thinks well, he solves problems fast, and he’s strong,” Bill says of his gracious neighbor. Then, pointing to the uppermost framing timber visible at the top of the two-story living room, he adds, “That one is 375 pounds.”

The result of all the hard work is a house perched comfortably in its location, as willing to embrace its environment as is its nature-loving owner. The home sits on a little more than an acre, but is surrounded by more than 300 acres belonging to neighbors. Warm weather brings sandhill cranes, herons, red-winged blackbirds, and other wildlife. Cornfields, traditionally painted red barns, and of course cows are not far away.

The home’s color palette ranges from metallic silver to green and tan; exterior materials include a standing-seam shed roof and galvanized corrugated metal. A narrow paved road that runs along the house is a favorite of long-distance bicycle riders, whose ride-by critiques are often overheard by Bill. “Some will say, ‘This is my favorite house on the road,’’’ he chuckles. “Another might say, ‘God, is that ugly.’”

Closer inspection reveals a house not entirely alien to these pastoral lands. The design employs the same building materials as the neighboring farms, but remixed with a modern hand. “The decision to use those materials was made to somehow relate to the setting, to the vernacular of the area,” says Danika. “It’s an interesting correlation to what’s historically been on the site: Those old dairy farms.” The designers’ security in their vision results in a home that references the site’s agrarian surroundings without explicitly pandering to the vernacular.

The interior of the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house is also inspired, particularly when the project’s modest cost is considered. The kitchen, living area, and dining area are combined into a generous, functional, and public space at the front of the house. The living room exudes openness, its two-story space topped by clerestory windows that pull in copious amounts of natural light. Elsewhere throughout the house, windows frame views of the surrounding pastoral landscape. “I’m completely delighted with the quality of work and the look,” Bill reports. “I like the dense, heavy firs used, too.” Exposed structural timbers that were salvaged from an old Wisconsin mill building frame the interior.

“The layout is very farmhouselike,” Jonas says. “It has an informal entry, and all of the spaces are as open and interconnected as possible.”

The public portions of the home face the valley below. The open living area is a nicely furnished and comfortably appointed space where Bill relaxes and listens to a music collection that hopscotches from Bach to Martha and the Vandellas to REM. Two loftlike second-floor bedrooms hover above. Bill wanted the extra space to accommodate his three sons and family members when they visit.

Toward the rear of the home—closest to the hill behind the house—the spaces grow smaller and more private. A first-floor bedroom overlooks the wooded hill and an adjacent library gives Bill, an avid reader and poet, a quiet place to relax away from the sounds of furniture making and upholstering.

Save for a few minor items on a seemingly never-ending to-do list, the home is almost complete. The experience has prompted Jonas and Danika, who work for separate residential architecture firms in San Francisco, to weigh the idea of going into business together full time. The two LEED-certified designers have started a firm, Nest Designs, but haven’t made the plunge into self-employment quite yet. “We talk about it all the time,” Jonas says of the venture. “It’s kind of a big step—getting clients and all that.”

Bill claims the project’s ultimate success left him with an appreciation for home building—particularly the way it was done back when farmers first settled in this fertile Wisconsin valley. He even considered changing professions. “When I was finishing up the house, I started to think, I could do this.’’ But seated comfortably in his home, he vows to stick to furniture.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Ceramics by WrenLab
Manhattan doesn’t get to have all the fun during NYCxDesign. Brooklyn is set for the return of BKLYN DESIGNS at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint from May 6-8, 2016. Here are just a few exhibitors we are excited to see this year.
April 29, 2016
n0a6974 dxo
Architect Diego Revollo refreshes an apartment with a standout kitchen.
April 29, 2016
img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016
dialogue house
At the base of Echo Mountain in Phoenix, a geometric home by Wendell Burnette opens up to the surrounding desert landscape.
April 26, 2016
street smarts kitchen full view
A creative couple transforms an old Toronto storefront in Dundas West into a home and studio.
April 26, 2016
hald strand
This architect thinks of everything for his summer escape, pizza oven included.
April 26, 2016
gans turin residence living room
Thanks to a contemporary interior that she’s been updating for a decade, modern architect Abigail Turin has learned to love her traditional 1925 San Francisco home.
April 25, 2016
131
Johannesburg-based design studio Counterspace was founded in 2014 by young architecture graduates Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, and Amina Kaskar. Their projects are collaborative, research-led investigations into possible futures and ideas of otherness in Johannesburg.
April 25, 2016
through living room
A second-story addition and a new indoor-outdoor focus revive a nondescript house in L.A.
April 25, 2016
Modern living room with Flexform sofa and Jens Fager candelabra
An Antwerp home blurs the boundaries between art and design.
April 25, 2016
hillside haven  1
This backyard is its own modern retreat in the Berkeley Hills.
April 25, 2016
Two studios flanks a central volume at this home in Mexico
Art and life meet in the middle at a family retreat in Central Mexico.
April 24, 2016
natural instinct swedish family home kitchen table unfold pendants muuto lilla aland chairs stolab
With Alvar Aalto in mind, a renowned Swedish architect crafts a serene home on a long-held family plot.
April 24, 2016
clearing the table coffee tables boxinbox philippe starck glas italia storage
A half-century later, furniture designers are catching up to painter Yves Klein’s visionary Table Bleue.
April 23, 2016
A deck looks out onto the beach in Australia
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 23, 2016
against the grain sustainable hudson new york home black walnut flooring furniture
An architect-turned-falconer considers animals and nature when designing his own home.
April 23, 2016
Aerial view of Copenhagen
@littlemycph finds symmetry in buildings and streets.
April 22, 2016
Josué Azor retuned to his family’s plot to build a new home, designed to resist future quakes and decorated with custom artwork and furniture.
In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake, a young Haitian photographer builds anew.
April 22, 2016
backyard with outdoor shower concrete pavers and wood fence
A hillside Virginia home located on a notch between two ridges is fun for the whole family.
April 22, 2016