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Up on the farm

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2006 - 9:57 AM

Architect Wayne Branum's instructions were to design an economical house for a 155-acre site in rural Wisconsin, one sympathetic to its agrarian setting, but with a modern twist. Here are five lessons from that project.

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1Design for the sun. Branum began with a blank slate: 155 raw acres of rolling countryside with a small pond and patches of woods.

The back of the house -- its broadest side -- has lots of windows to take advantage of the southern exposure. The kitchen is on the east side of the house, to capture morning light, and the side of the house that faces north has a low-sloping roof and few windows to protect the house from rough weather.

2 Honor thy landscape. The house was inspired by the rural buildings seen in the pastoral countryside of western Wisconsin, but it wasn't modeled after a specific building or archetype. "I'm a potter," Branum said. "Pots evolve out of the need for utility, and in some ways buildings do that, too, meaning that agricultural buildings would evolve based on how they would be used."

In the spirit of that idea, Branum designed a house that looks like it is a series of "boxes" under a variety of classic rooflines of different pitches. The goal was to make it look as though the house had been there for years and had grown over time.

3 On a tight budget? Keep things simple. Branum's client initially wanted to stick to a budget of about $150,000, a tall order when the cost of labor and construction materials is on the rise. New houses can easily cost $300 a square foot.

"We tried not to invent anything; the minute you do that, you generally pay for that in labor and the unknown factor for builders," Branum said. "The idea was to keep it simple and standard."

That meant simple roof lines without complicated gables or dormers and in-floor heat on a slab. Forgoing a basement saved money on excavation, concrete and floor-covering costs. "The most economic way to do it is in a concrete slab and then let that be your floors; it's as rudimentary system as you can have," he said.

The exterior is clad with inexpensive corrugated galvanized sheet metal that can be cut to fit on-site and is attached directly to plywood sheathing over wood-framed walls.

4 Use multiple ceiling heights to define spaces. With about 2,000 square feet on two levels, this isn't a small house. But Branum's client wanted it to feel open and spacious, so he came up with a design that uses multiple ceiling heights to help articulate individual rooms. The living room, for example, has soaring two-story ceilings. The master bedroom, which is tucked under cozy angled ceilings, overlooking the living room. And the walls in the compact main-floor guest room don't extend all the way to the ceiling.

While such spaces can make a compact space feel larger, it's an approach that should be considered carefully. This house was designed for two adults and three dogs, so the lack of a ceiling or acoustical separation between the guest room and living room isn't a problem.

5 Make built-ins do double-duty. The kitchen has open shelves rather than more expensive upper cabinets. In the living room, there's a tall built-in that doubles as the wall between the living room and guest room. On the living room side of the cabinet, there's a spot for a TV set, shelves and a niche for the wood-burning stove. The same concept was used upstairs, where a low, built-in cabinet replaces a railing in the bedroom that overlooks the living room.


Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

  • about this series

  • The Home of the Month program is a partnership between the Star Tribune and the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It features architect-designed houses selected by a jury of experts. The houses represent a range of prices, styles and locations.
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  • The south-facing back of the house has lots of windows to take advantage of passive solar gains. Various roof lines help make this house feel like a rural farm building that has evolved over time.


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