Barb Wake’s geometric little home in eastern Wisconsin’s rolling hills is no typical farm house. With its squat stature, overlapping square form and tiered rooflines, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home is more reminiscent of a Japanese tea house than a Midwestern ranch.
Barb had owned the property for a couple of years before deciding to build there. She knew architect Chad Cornette because his wife, Julia, boards horses in stables on Barb’s property. "The land was so pretty, I saw myself living out here," Barb says. "I liked the philosophy of building smaller. We started talking, and Chad asked me if I was interested in using some green building methods, so we went from there and it just blossomed."
Breaking the box
An alumnus of Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, Arizona, Cornette has defined his career by designing small homes that, according to his website, "make better use of raw materials and use less energy to create places of beauty and increase the quality of life in the process." He brought many innovative design ideas to create a small but efficient space for Barb.
"The house was drawn from a single concept, and that was overlapping squares, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s basic concepts," Cornette says. "His main effort in his career was to break open the box." Wright’s design concepts help make a small home seem more spacious. "The concept of overlapping squares directly relates to overlapping spaces’ functions. We’re also overlapping outdoor space with indoor spaces. That concept even came down to the smallest details, creating harmony throughout," he says.
Cornette kept the home’s design simple and open but used several techniques to increase visual interest. Varied ceiling heights define distinct areas, and high clerestory windows allow in ambient daylight. Details such as a rotating bookcase and pivoting doors create the opportunity to open or delineate rooms. "We used the ceiling height and volume to define spaces rather than walls," Cornette says. "I think the most important one is the cupola. It creates a 15-foot vertical volume in the center of the living room/kitchen/foyer area, and it’s really central to the home."
The open floor plan also creates an impression of larger expanses. "One important quality for small houses is long views through the home. They aren’t big, vast views, but they are long and you can see other spaces kind of moving in and out of those views," Cornette says. "It creates different levels of light moving through each space and develops an impression of a larger area with a lot of interest."
Cornette also used Frank Lloyd Wright’s method of pushing windows to corners to provide a deep connection with the outdoors. "The windows eliminate that definition of the box. If you remove the corner from a square, it eliminates the confined space, and the interior space begins to feel like the outdoors," Cornette says. "If you place a window in the middle of a wall, it’s like hanging a picture of the outside. If you move the windows to the corner, now you stand in that space and you’re surrounded by the outdoors."
The connection with nature and the simple floor plan work perfectly for Barb, who asked Cornette for a small home with lots of views. "I live a simple life, and he really created a space that suits me to a T," she says. "Everywhere you look is a view, and it expands the living space. It’s not a closed-in feeling. There’s no restriction. It’s not a big house, but it feels huge because there are no hallways, no little claustrophobic rooms."
The design has practical benefits as well. "I love the fact that I can clean this house in about a half hour because everything is reachable," Barb says. Living in a home filled with visual interest allows her to simplify her life in other ways, too. "I don’t find myself wanting to accumulate things because I feel it closing in on me. I like the feeling of not owning so much, living in the space without clutter and knickknacks. If I want to bring something in, it has to be pretty special. What looks best on the island in the kitchen is just some wildflowers. It doesn’t take much to change the look; you add one thing that’s neat-looking, and that’s all you need."
Built into its surroundings, the home is designed to take advantage of the sun’s movement for optimal indirect daylighting and passive solar heating during winter months. The building shape maximizes passive solar gains and promotes natural cross-ventilation. Energy Star windows and appliances, a standing-seam metal roof, an efficient geothermal heating and cooling system linked with in-floor radiant heat and spray-foam insulation help the home exceed Wisconsin’s award-winning Green Built Home energy requirements by 20 percent.
Cornette also created a healthy interior, choosing low-VOC paints, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood for the built-in woodwork and bamboo flooring to minimize allergens. "I think my dog and I are both healthier from living in this house," Barb says. The healthy indoor environment has inspired her to remove anything toxic from her home. "It leads me to use simpler methods of keeping things clean."
The home has attracted attention in its rural region. During a 2006 Wisconsin home tour, the home drew fans from far and wide. "People would walk in, look around and have to catch their breath almost," Barb says. "It ran for two weekends. People were coming from 50, 75, 100 miles away, and then they’d come back the next weekend and bring their friends!"
She understands the attraction. "It’s the simplicity. I think as things get more and more complicated, people really need a refuge. I think rather than accumulating more things, people would probably feel more relaxed if they got rid of a few things."
A chat with the homeowner
What’s your favorite feature in your home?
One very unique item is the bedroom door—it is floor-to-ceiling and hinged, so it is more of a movable wall. When it’s open you don’t even realize it’s there.
What type of leftovers are normally in your refrigerator?
I make a lot of things just so I will have leftovers: soup, roast chicken, salads.
What’s your favorite way to spend a snowy afternoon at home?
Cooking, reading and clearing my quarter-mile driveway when it stops snowing.
Why did you choose to build a smaller home?
I wanted to have a less complicated lifestyle, and building smaller allowed me to have some higher-quality items that were important to me, such as in-floor radiant heat.
What is one challenge of living in a small space?
Learning how to live “smaller” by not accumulating a lot of things. The smaller space works well only if it remains uncluttered.
What is your favorite room?
I love the kitchen because there are windows in place of the upper cabinets and it is also open to the rest of the living area.
The good stuff
Architect: Chad Cornette, The Cantilever Studio, (920) 360-5040
Builder: Dennis Kozicki, Kozicki Homes, (920) 391-6518
Interior Design: Chad Cornette and Designs of the Interior, Green Bay, Wisconsin
Landscaping: Chad Cornette and Barb Wake
House Size (square footage): 1,680 square feet conditioned, 800 square feet designed but unfinished on lower level
Bedrooms: 1 master, 1 future in basement
Bathroom: 1 master, 1 half-bath, 1 future in basement
Cost per Square Foot: $220 per square foot of finished space (does not include 800-square-foot basement; does include driveway, septic system and well)
Heating/Cooling System: Passive solar, horizontal-loop geothermal heating and cooling, in-floor hydronic radiant heat
Electricity Source: Utility
Lighting: CFL, no recessed fixtures to prevent heat loss
Appliances: Energy Star
Insulation: Earthseal closed-cell spray foam
Exterior Materials: Exterior insulating finish system of synthetic stucco adds R-6 insulation quality to wall and requires zero maintenance, standing-seam metal roof, cultured stone (crushed stone remnants cast in formed molds and applied to wall surface like tile) from River Valley Stone
Interior Materials: Renewable Strand bamboo flooring, low-VOC paints, FSC-certified built-in woodwork, all hard surfaces to reduce allergens, Energy Star Pella windows, make-up air unit with heat recovery ventilator for healthy indoor air and increased efficiency, water-based wood sealants, fiber-cement fascia and soffits, natural slate and river rock tiles on fireplace and in bathrooms
Water Conservation Systems: Works with natural terrain of landscape for stormwater management
Fixtures: Toto water-saving toilets, water-saving faucets, front-loading washer
Waste Reduction: 2-by-4 wall studs at 24 inches on center and 2-by-8 roof rafters save lumber and increase interior space
Recycling: All construction waste recycled
Construction Methods: Efficient 2-by-4 wall framing saves lumber; 2-by-8 roof rafters save lumber
Site and Land Use: Passive solar design and site orientation to make home work with sun’s path; building designed to take advantage of cross ventilation
Plants: Placed within existing trees, designed to work with vegetation and microclimates. Plants split and replanted from homeowner’s previous home.
Water Conservation: Works with natural landscaping for stormwater management
Wisconsin’s Green Built Home plan, exceeds energy requirements by 20 percent
Jessica Kellner is Natural Home’s managing editor.