Up North, Looking East: A Reclaimed Timber Japanese-Style House in Wisconsin

Built using trees thinned from the well-nurtured forest around it, a home brings the wisdom of Japanese farmhouse building to the Wisconsin woods.

| November/December 2011

  • Patricia, a cooking and baking enthusiast, wanted a large kitchen designed for entertaining. She opted to forego upper cabinets so she could take advantage of the kitchen's gorgeous views. Patricia says the trade-off had the added benefit of forcing her to limit the amount of stuff she keeps in her kitchen.
    Photo By Mark Sokolowski
  • The beauty of the woods surrounding their family home inspired Alex (pictured) and Gordon Greene to learn to sustainably maintain its health and wellness. In managing the forest, Alex follows the Full Vigor Forestry philosophy developed by Wisconsinite Jim Birkemeier, which advises foresters to forget about complex forestry concepts and “instead get to know your own woods—and watch closely.” Alex says of his forest, “common sense has emerged as our most valuable guiding principle.”
    Photo By Mark Sokolowski
  • Although it is built with materials and methods not typical in North America, the Greenes’ Wisconsin home looks the part of an idyllic cottage in the woods.
    Photo By Mark Sokolowski
  • The Greenes’ son, Alex, oversaw construction of the timber frame and sustainable forest management. He used red oak, elm, walnut and cherry from the home’s wooded site to build the post-and-beam structure that defines the home. By leaving intact whole trees that otherwise would be considered unusable, Alex was able to mimic a Japanese minka’s lightness and sculptural qualities.
    Photo By Mark Sokolowski
  • Though traditional minka do not have elaborate fireplaces, they do include a central fire space, specially designed so the smoke could rise and escape through the roof. To mimic this, Patricia and Gordon installed a wood-burning stove set into a stone chimney. The chimney’s thermal mass helps retain heat in winter and preserve evening coolness during hot summer days.
    Photo By Mark Sokolowski
  • The beauty of the woods surrounding their family home inspired Alex and Gordon Greene to learn to sustainably maintain its health and wellness.
    Photo By Mark Sokolowski

In traditional minka—the humble dwellings of Japanese farmers, artisans and merchants—carpenters made use of what the upper classes overlooked, often bent and irregular wood that was cheap and locally available. Over centuries, Japanese carpenters developed an elegant interlocking framing system that unites crooked pieces of lumber in a dynamic, happenstance dance. Inside a minka, the sum is more than the parts. And every part is unique.

Gordon and Patricia Greene, longtime Zen students who have spent considerable time in Japan, set out to capture the spirit of minka—creating serenity and beauty out of the materials around you—without creating a Japanese-style house. The Greenes paid homage to minka design by culling every construction material for their timberframe home in southwestern Wisconsin from the surrounding woods. Made up of the weak trees they removed to make the forest healthier, the home is a testament to the potential and perfection in natural materials often deemed worthless. Gordon and Patricia gauge their success by the reactions of their frequent Japanese guests. “It’s always wonderful to watch them,” Gordon says. “They do a double take. They know they’re not in Japan, but the feeling is there.”

The Perfect Setting 

Gordon and Patricia had a longtime interest in designing their own home, a fascination that runs in Gordon’s family. His grandfather had an early Frank Lloyd Wright home built, and his parents built several different styles of homes as Gordon was growing up. When he and Patricia left Hawaii for Wisconsin to be near family in 2006, part of their motive was to design their own home, and they were determined to find the perfect setting—one that provided a connection with nature and local construction materials.

Though they had searched for the right piece of Wisconsin land several times when visiting, the couple ended up buying their 110 acres near Taliesin (Wright’s famous Wisconsin home) sight unseen. When their realtor called to say the rare and desirable wooded location had come up for sale, Gordon and Patricia asked a friend to drive from Madison and take a look. He declared the land pristine and beautiful, and the Greenes snapped it up. When the friend visited Gordon and Patricia in Hawaii a couple of weeks later, he brought walnuts from the property. The couple knew the durable, beautiful wood of walnut trees would be ideal for building their home and providing the basis of a managed forest. “I felt like it was meant to be,” Patricia says.

A Design Emerges 

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