It's an undeniable fact that home building consumes resources and disturbs nature. The goal of a responsible architect, then, is to design a house that blunts the blow to its delicate surroundings. This 2,700-square-foot gem in Wisconsin is such a house. “The homeowners wanted something sensitive to the environment,” says Brian Johnsen, AIA, of Milwaukee-based Johnsen Schmaling Architects, but like many laypeople, they were unsure of what and how much that would entail. “We tried to introduce as many [sustainable strategies] as we could without going over the budget,” he says. Located in a rural area of the state, the 2.5-acre site is graced by a grove of birch trees, which provide a degree of privacy the clients wanted to preserve. Because the site also encompasses a steep bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, the architects sought to maximize the views as well. To accomplish these goals, the duo designed the house as an 18-foot-wide linear volume oriented on a north-south axis. “The shape takes advantage of the views, but the thinness allows light to penetrate the interiors and maximizes cross-ventilation,” thus reducing electric loads for lighting and air conditioning, Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, explains. Very few trees were removed from the site. Instead, the house cleaves tightly to the birch grove, borrowing shade from the tree canopy in summer and drawing light and warmth through a large, west-facing skylight in the winter.

The architects looked to the area's agrarian traditions for their exterior palette but kept most of the colors dark to blend house and foliage. The base is stained concrete block, the siding is fiber cement and cedar board-and-batten, and the roof is standing-seam metal. “The steel roof can be recycled and has a low lifecycle cost,” Schmaling says. “The light color also reduces heat gain.”

The architects' biggest sustainable move—successfully winnowing the size of the house while still answering the clients' program—is the least obvious. Instead of multiple single-purpose rooms, they designed multiuse, flexible spaces that adapt to various tasks; large, custom sliding doors augment the feeling of space with expansive views to the outdoors. Other sustainable attributes come from low-VOC paints and stains, reclaimed flooring, a super-efficient HVAC system, and Energy Star-rated appliances.

Along with its satisfied clients, the firm's biggest enjoyment derives from the stealth quality of the house's sustainable design. It doesn't scream green, nor did it consume vastly more green than a conventional house. “It does cost a little more to design an efficient house,” says Johnsen, “but there are simple commonsense things you can do” to make a house that rests lightly on the land, stresses quality over quantity, and consumes less energy.

House in the Woods, Port Washington, Wis.
Johnsen Schmaling Architects, Milwaukee
general contractor:
Ruvin Bros., Glendale, Wis.
project size:
2,700 square feet
site size:
2.5 acres
construction cost:
Courtesy Johnsen Schmaling Architects, except where noted