A Minneapolis couple's weekend country home in Black River Falls, Wis., makes the most of its minimal square footage.
Myles and Sue Jacob are happy living in the city, in a south Minneapolis home built in the early 1900s. But sometimes they crave the tranquility of the country.
“We love the city, but we needed a break — a place where the background noise is nature, not city sounds,” said Myles, who is a merchandiser for the band Los Lobos. Sue is a Minneapolis teacher.
After their children left home for college, the Jacobs decided it was time to find a piece of land — one that was rural rather than the typical Up North wilderness on a lake. (Myles’ family already had a lakeshore cabin near Ely, Minn.)
The couple had become familiar with the Coulee Region of western Wisconsin while driving the winding roads through the rolling hills and valleys. “It’s beautiful dairyland,” said Myles. “Very rural with lots of wildlife.”
In 2003, they found 40 idyllic acres, part of an abandoned farmstead at the end of a remote dirt road near Black River Falls, Wis. The ramshackle farmhouse was falling down, but the red barn was still intact. Plus the property had a well and electricity. “It was the most beautiful land we had looked at anywhere,” said Myles. “It was very private and pastoral.”
The Jacobs tore down the farmhouse and then, on weekends, camped or slept in a small trailer to get the feel of the land while they saved money to build someday. “We didn’t want a rustic cabin, but were looking for a finished house that could be a weekend getaway all year long,” said Myles.
For inspiration, the Jacobs turned to Frank Lloyd Wright. “We’ve been to Taliesin and read all the books,” said Myles. “We like his horizontal and geometric lines and his way of making a house fit on a site.”
While doing research, the couple discovered a modern glass and cedar aerie perched on a bluff near Black River Falls. That house, featured in the Star Tribune in 2008, was designed by architect Meghan Kell Cornell when she was with SALA Architects. “The flat roof, extensive overhangs and design principles appealed to us,” said Myles.
In 2011, they contacted Cornell, who had since launched her own firm, Kell Architects in St. Paul, and this year was named an American Institute of Architects Minnesota Young Architect. “She was an up-and-coming architect,” said Myles. “And we had a simpatico connection with her.”
But most important, Cornell reassured them that she could design a cost-effective, multi-functional, expressive home that maximized the valley views, while staying within the couple’s $200,000 budget.
The Jacobs already had their 40 acres of land, but still faced the challenge of finding the perfect site for the home. Surprisingly, it turned out to be the spot where they had placed the composting toilet years before. “It’s by far the best view and the most private,” said Myles.
Cornell positioned their new home atop a gentle ridge overlooking a lush valley with pastureland dotted with grazing cows, flowing creeks and ponds visited by wildlife. Woods filled with birch and oaks border the property.
Myles and Sue are greeted by an old-fashioned, welcoming front porch sheltered by a flat roof and deep overhangs. A cedar deck floats across the front of the home and then extends out over the landscape like a plank on a ship.
The Jacobs’ budget drove many of Cornell’s design decisions, including home size. The couple requested two bedrooms — one to serve as a guest room for visiting children and friends. Cornell saved on costs by reducing the footprint, but still creating space for two bedrooms. She designed an 850-square-foot main floor with a master bedroom and a 268-square-foot loft as the second bedroom. “The sloped loft pops up above the flat roof,” said Cornell. “It gives you the idea of the dramatic change in elevation in the surrounding landscape.”
A staircase in the front entry, constructed of reclaimed cypress panels formerly used in commercial mushroom-growing bins, is the home’s sculptural centerpiece. Natural light filters in through the steel-rod railing. “I didn’t want you to be able to see the view when you walked into the door,” said Cornell. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
Beyond the staircase is the big reveal — a 10-foot-tall living room with big windows on three sides facing the valley. Instead of costly dramatic walls of glass, Cornell strategically placed 24 windows in a variety of sizes throughout the home to deliver views of the changing seasons. “In the end, our budget informed a successful strategy,” said Myles. “We have windows that frame the setting instead of making us feel like we’re in a fishbowl.”
The adjacent U-shaped kitchen is well-equipped for the avid cooks, with an apartment-sized dishwasher to save space. “We wanted more than a sink and a microwave,” said Myles. “We make meals from the vegetables we grow.”
The efficiently designed main floor and loft also have plenty of space-saving built-ins. A bench the full length of one wall offers more seating and storage, while built-in beds have drawers, and a cypress-trimmed window box serves as a reading nook. Many of the wood cabinets and millwork were built by local Amish craftspeople.
While keeping a close eye on expenses, the Jacobs decided to splurge on a geothermal heat system and full basement with a concrete foundation. “We got a 30 percent rebate on the geothermal cost,” said Myles. “And the home costs pennies to heat.” The unfinished basement cost about $10,000, but offers space if they decide to add a bedroom. “Plus we have a safe place to go when it storms,” said Myles.
Although the home’s main floor is only 850 square feet, “it never feels like a small and cramped house,” said Myles. That’s because its light-filled rooms, changes in ceiling heights and highlighted architectural details make the home feel much bigger than its compact size.
The Jacobs’ retreat is an example of building smaller, and not sacrificing style, to extend a budget, said Cornell. “Simple forms are used to the fullest to live bigger in small spaces,” she said.
Every weekend, Myles and Sue escape from hectic city life to their rural abode they’ve named “Coulee Wind.” They cultivate vegetables in an expansive plot they could never have in their small city yard, and also tend two beehives that produce fresh honey. There’s no TV, Wi-Fi or computers. Often, the Jacobs see Amish buggies traveling down the road.
“We’re only two hours from our home, and it feels like a million miles away,” said Myles.
Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619