Labor of Loved Ones
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.
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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.