Case Study: Rural Retreat by Rehkamp Larson Architects

Minnesota has a strong cabin culture, and Rehkamp Larson Architects has designed more than its share of this building type over the years.  The Minneapolis-based practice ranges freely among city, suburban, and rural, including weekend retreats on the spectrum between simple and bespoke. With Wisconsin just to the east, farmhouses are part of the regional vernacular too, and this rural retreat is a blend of those two typologies.

The 90-acre site lies three and a half hours from Minneapolis in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, so-called because it was never covered with ice from drifting glaciers, leaving intact rolling hills with microclimates that are ideal for organic farming. “It could never be completely filled with corn because of the rivers and woods, but there are hillsides that face just the right way for crops,” says Mark Larson, AIA. An old barn still stands on the property, but the original house had withered away.

In many ways, the building area was ideal. On a hilltop with long views, the land has good drainage, and as an established farmstead, the old house had been well sited, as they often are. Positioning the new building roughly on the spot of the old one meant that the existing driveway and utility lines could be used and no mature trees were in the way.

Indeed, an ethic of frugality infused the design, and vernacular architecture lent itself handily to this approach with its standard framing spans, durable materials, and simple roof forms that shed water. With its front facing south, the structure’s massing evokes a farmstead’s multiple buildings, such as the granary, chicken coop, or pole barn. A glazed entryway/mudroom links the living spaces on the west with the garage on the east. “A mudroom at the front door isn’t what you’d do in the city,” Mark says. “But the front door is right by the garage, so there’s a place for jackets and boots. The small covered front porch gives formality to it, but the space is absolutely a connection between the garage and main part of the house, and the front and back.”

The two-story central section—kitchen and dining room below, two bedrooms, a bath, office, and laundry above—has a gable roof, while the two-story east volume—garage with owners’ suite above—has a mono-pitch roof that gives the composition a fresh, modern feeling while also suggesting a shed.

Balancing those two rooflines, a perpendicular lower gable encloses a slightly vaulted living room and covered porch. “The porch deck extends past the roof, so the house gets more open as it moves to the west,” Mark says. On the north, a breezeway behind the entry corridor connects a workshop at the back of the garage with a screened porch behind the dining room. “Breaking up the massing allows opportunities for nooks and crannies, daylight and views between the space,” says Mark.

Material Rhythm

Timber sets an appropriately rural tone, but here it is hardly a cabin cliché. The beefy exterior siding—a “find” by the owner—was salvaged from interstate sound barriers in Chicago. An inch and a half thick and heavily weathered, it establishes an aesthetic rhythm. “It needs no treatment and is so thick you notice it’s different from regular siding,” Mark says. “It only came in certain lengths, and the building was too tall to run all vertical board, so the joints are both vertical and horizontal. They ended up becoming part of the rhythm in a modern way. It’s not tongue-in-groove, so the small screws are exposed; the assembly is part of the detail.”

This super-thick siding was painstakingly prepped by hand in builder Justin Halverson’s shop.  “There were fasteners in it, screws that had broken off,” he says. “We took wire mesh wheel grinders and polished it. That drew some of the decay and dirt out of it, gave it some depth, and made the wood grain more visible.” The boards were pre-drilled and fastened with 6-inch torque screws, with the heads painted black. “I’m pretty sure the house is bulletproof,” Justin says. “It’s the hardest stuff we’ve ever worked with, but the end result was worth it.”

Against this rhythm, windows are set in singles or ganged up to create corner cutaways that provide multidirectional views. Corten steel around the base of the house keeps the envelope’s 2-inch-thick insulation panels from showing along the foundation. In addition to bringing a modern vibe, “the Corten steel needs no maintenance, didn’t need to be tuck-pointed, and brings a rich red color to the architecture,” Mark says. Metal-and-glass garage doors allow light to reach the back of the garage, where the outdoorsy owners keep their bikes and cross-country ski equipment.

Reclaimed materials were used liberally inside too, including southern yellow pine flooring and Doug fir ceilings, cabinetry, and trim. In the kitchen, a blue-painted island and stone and stainless steel countertops are cool counterpoints to the wood, and floating shelves make it easy for guests to find a drinking glass.

The exterior’s ipe reappears in the entryway and continues up the stairwell wall, where the husband’s much-loved road bike hangs like a piece of art. “The entryway has the feeling of a link that connects the house to the garage form, as though you’ve left one building and are passing through to another,” Mark says. The vertically installed ipe wall boards and open-riser steel staircase also create a vertical link, giving the entryway the illusion of being two stories tall. “The vertical ipe draws your eye down to the main level,” and vice versa, Mark says.

Vacation homes often pay homage to the more relaxed and rewarding side of family life, and that’s true here as well. In addition to the bike’s position on the stairwell wall, there are other gestures to the owners’ favorite downtime activities. The pantry—an open extension of the kitchen—facilitates their love of cooking with local farm fare; the architects included shelves for books and nooks in which to read them, and built-in firewood storage for the living room’s wood-burning stove. Frequent entertainers, they also have a basement guest room and TV room, and plenty of yard space for tents.

Like all good buildings, this rural retreat is a considered response to time, place, daily life, and budget. “It is a good expression of a balance between the scope and detailing and budget, trying to be smart about doing a frugal house that has an authentic beauty,” Mark says. “That was one of the most interesting parts of the house: it feels like it belongs to the place, and many of its materials will look better with age.”



Plans and Drawings

Project Credits

Rural Retreat

Southwest Wisconsin

ARCHITECT: Principal-in-charge: Mark Larson, AIA; project architect: Ryan Bicek, AIA; Laurel Johnston, AIA, Rehkamp Larson Architects, Minneapolis

BUILDER: Justin Halverson, owner; Tom Parr, sawyer; Eric Nedland, superintendent; Travis Gnewikow, foreman, Bad Axe Log Homes & Supply, Viroqua, Wisconsin

INTERIOR DESIGNER: Brooke Voss Interior Design, Minneapolis

PROJECT SIZE: 3,200 square feet

SITE SIZE: 90 acres


PHOTOGRAPHER: Scott Amundson Photography

Key Products

DOORS: Marvin


FLOORING: Tile X Design


LIGHTING: Hi-Lite, Elk, Hubbardton Forge, Nuevo, Arteriors

RANGE: BlueStar


OVEN: Thermador

SINKS: Kohler


TUB: Kohler



No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.