Topo House

8. December 2014

Topo House
2013
Blue Mounds, Wisconsin

Client
Withheld

Architect
Johnsen Schmaling Architects
Milwaukee, WI

Design Principals
Brian Johnsen, AIA, and Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, LEED AP

Structural Engineer
Larson Engineering

Landscape Architect
Johnsen Schmaling Architects

Contractor
Yahara Builders

Site Area
80 acres

Building Area
3,400 sf

Photographs
John J. Macaulay

Drawings and Models
Johnsen Schmaling Architects

Designed for an engineer and an artist, the Topo House is an apt name, given the way it peels up gently from the Wisconsin landscape, melding itself with the site's topography. Johnsen Schmaling Architects' low-slung design can also be seen as a response to the state's cold climate, deflecting the cold breezes to maintain a comfortable interior from which the surrounding land can be glimpsed. The architects answered a few questions about the award-winning project.

Approaching the building from the south

What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?

The Topo House was designed for a biomedical engineer and his wife, a sculptor and installation artist. After living for two decades in an old converted church in downtown Madison, the couple, both avid bikers, decided to relocate to the countryside to be closer to nature and have direct access to Wisconsin’s expansive network of bike trails. The clients asked us create a quiet, unassuming home that would be nestled in its natural context – a place with ambiguous boundaries between interior and exterior

View from the green roof looking south

Please provide an overview of the project.

We designed a low-slung volume composed of two staggered bars embedded in the sites gentle slope. Small exterior courtyards, carved out of the building mass, create an amorphous footprint whose undulating perimeter is united by a continuous roof ribbon, a copper band that gradually rises out of the ground and ultimately terminates in a dramatic cantilever over a large south-facing terrace. The courtyards function as outdoor extensions of the interior rooms – sheltered spaces providing protection against the area’s strong and abruptly changing winds.

View of the entry courtyard

What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?

The building sits in the unglaciated landscape of Wisconsin’s “Driftless Region,” an area known for its softly rolling hills and tight ravines. Based on our early conceptual studies interpreting the site’s distinct topography as a series of folded parallel planes, the house forms a partially submerged building volume with a meticulously detailed copper roof plane that slowly peels itself up from the ground and extends the adjacent fields as a green carpet over the lower portion of the house.  What we were trying to achieve was a building that would be able to transcend the boundaries between landscape and architecture, between nature and tectonics.  

The house traces the lines of the surrounding topography

We designed a building envelope that echoes the dramatic surface deformations that occur when wind blows over the crops and grasses of the surrounding prairie – it’s a high-perfomance ventilated rainscreen system with concrete fiber panels, organized by 190 individually shaped, black-anodized aluminum fins of interrelated contracting and expanding shapes. Depending on the time of the day and the angle from which they are viewed, the fins create a constantly changing veil whose shifting geometry subverts the volumetric simplicity of the house itself.

View from the kitchen to the living hall

Were there any significant challenges that arose during the project? If so, how did you respond to them?

The house is built around a palette of sustainable and highly durable materials to make this a “house for life,” featuring an envelope that is designed to endure the continuous onslaught of the Midwest’s severe weather conditions and extreme temperature fluctuations. Copper, concrete, anodized aluminum dominate the exterior palette, allowing the house to age gracefully. The structure itself was engineered to the stricter standards of the commercial building code in anticipation of the area’s increasingly violent, tornado-strength storms. The ventilated rainscreen façade system protects the underlying thermal envelope from direct solar exposure and moisture, directly improving the relative comfort zone of the occupants inside. The flow of air behind the suspended concrete fiber panels allows moisture to escape, thus significantly reducing the risk for mold or mildew growth. Inside, paperless gypsum board was used to further inhibit mold growth. Interior materials were specified for durability and the occasional abuse by skis, hiking boots and dog paws, including polished concrete floors and domestic vertical grain white oak floors that can be easily refinished.

View of the kitchen

How would you describe the architecture of Wisconsin and how does the building relate to it?

Historically, Wisconsin’s architecture was influenced by the northern European immigrants that settled here – an unpretentious, pragmatic architecture that is instilled with the ethos of hard work and robust craftsmanship. What we find fascinating is that this old-world attitude toward craft and quality construction is very much alive today, with many contractors operating as third- or fourth-generation family businesses infusing their work with personal pride. In addition, Wisconsin continues to be one of America’s most important manufacturing hubs; part of that is a diverse pool of custom fabricators that we as architects can tap into to design and make architectural components such as the vertical fins in this project; these shops fuse the latest fabrication technologies with the traditional spirit of craftsmanship, which results in a level of quality that is unusually high within the American context of construction.

Email interview conducted by John Hill.

View of the bathroom
The material palette is limited to exposed concrete, fiber concrete panels, and copper.
The fins create an undulating exterior skin.
View from the southeast
The house in the winter
View from the north
Exploded Axonometric
Floor plan
Plan diagrams
Conceptual façade study models
Conceptual study model
Section model

Topo House
2013
Blue Mounds, Wisconsin

Client
Withheld

Architect
Johnsen Schmaling Architects
Milwaukee, WI

Design Principals
Brian Johnsen, AIA, and Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, LEED AP

Structural Engineer
Larson Engineering

Landscape Architect
Johnsen Schmaling Architects

Contractor
Yahara Builders

Site Area
80 acres

Building Area
3,400 sf

Photographs
John J. Macaulay

Drawings and Models
Johnsen Schmaling Architects

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