When Bruce and Ann McPheeters and their son Jeff decided to enter the vacation rental business, they wisely emphasized design as a strategy for differentiating their new enterprise from the competition.
"We wanted the architecture to be part of the destination, part of the experience," said Jeff McPheeters. "A tower really helps with that."
The project started with a search for land near their longtime family cabin in Grantsburg, Wis., that culminated in a 140-acre plot that checked off many of the must-haves on their wish list. The rolling acreage features a finger-shaped lake, long-farmed cropland that could be returned to prairie, rock outcroppings and forests of pine, oak and maple.
"With its prairie, forests and water, you get a little taste of all of Wisconsin," said Jeff. "You get a sense of all of the biomes."
They realized that the best way to show the scenery to its best advantage was to build up, and that's the genesis of the Star Tribune/AIA Home of the Month winner they call MetalLark Tower.
The McPheeterses reached out to David O'Brien Wagner of SALA Architects. Wagner was behind a 2014-2015 AIA Home of the Month winning home near Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, and its design had made a memorable impression on Jeff.
"From the very beginning it felt like we were all speaking the same language of how you can connect a building to nature," said Wagner. "It was pretty clear that their affinity for design was compatible with mine."
No kidding. For starters, the McPheeterses had long admired several cabins that had been fashioned from fire towers. Wagner, who spent countless hours hiking the mountains of his native Washington state before marrying a Minnesotan and relocating to the Twin Cities, developed an enduring fascination with the forests' sentinel-like fire towers. Bingo.
Beyond the appeal of making an homage to an iconic building type, or creating an opportunity to soak up views of the gorgeous Wisconsin countryside, there was a practical side to going tall: The novelty of a tower-shaped cabin is total Instagram bait. This is a business, after all. One that is powered by social media.
Plus, the prospect of creating a vertical cabin just sounded like a lot of fun.
"Anyone who has ever played with building blocks wants to build a tower," Jeff said. Wagner agrees. "It was not a hard sell when they said, 'Hey, let's do a tower,'" he said with a laugh.
"A big part of the design process was walking the land," said Wagner. "It got us thinking about opportunities for views and the orientation of the sun."
After much study, the decision was made to place the cabin on a slope, nestling it into a line of trees. The site's built-in views are accentuated by the cabin's height.
That upward lift created structural challenges. As a solution, Wagner turned to steel, an unusual — for residential construction, anyway — building material, collaborating with engineer Kirk Davis of Meyer Borgman Johnson.
"I can't give enough credit to Kirk," said Wagner. "Everything that we talked about from an architectural and aesthetic standpoint, he helped us to manifest in real life."
After being fabricated by Northshore Steel in Two Harbors, Minn., the beams and posts were assembled, Erector Set-style, in a day, by a crane and a crew of five. That frame — which is anchored by formidable concrete piers — is the exoskeleton upon which the cabin's insulated wood frame is secured.
"We have super-cold winters, and none of the steel passes through the heated envelope of the building," said Wagner. "The steel does its job of holding the building up, but there's no transfer of heat energy."
Less is truly more. With its crisp, form-follows-function steel profile, MetalLark looks as if it could belong in the portfolio of Modernist titan Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, filed under "L" for "luxury duck blind."
'I've had multiple friends ask if they can come and hunt from the second floor," said Jeff. For the curious, the answer is "no."
Clean Nordic lines
The cabin's brawny, steel-powered verticality is tempered with a horizontal element that boldly moves from outdoors to indoors and then back outside.
Guests access the cabin via a narrow bridge that leads to the front door. Once inside, a hallway runs in a straight line through the interior, then continues past a glass door to a second bridge-like deck that dramatically juts out from the cabin, terminating in a bench.
"I'm always intrigued by choreographing interesting movements through a building and through space," said Wagner. "That gesture of bringing across, entering and then carrying out to a point of stasis is a very powerful notion to me."
The interior's minimalist ethos maximizes connections to the outdoors, with stunning floor-to-ceiling windows wrapping the building on three sides. The fourth exterior wall is sheathed in corrugated steel panels that act as a privacy cloak, one that hugs the two adjacent walls.
That steel is designed to rust when exposed to weather, a handsome, low-maintenance choice. The cabin's service core — bathroom, laundry, staircase — are discreetly tucked behind that opaque wall.
Because of the site's slope, the cabin's main floor is actually its second floor; below it, at ground level, is space for mechanicals, storage and a storm shelter. Along with an entrance space, most of the main floor is occupied by the bedroom — separated from the hallway by a sliding barn door — and bathroom.
The vistas really pop upstairs, where a multipurpose room includes a fully equipped kitchen. The airy, loft-like openness that results from three walls of glass is accentuated by 11-foot-high ceilings.
There's not a wasted square inch, and user friendliness is a major theme. For example, a small workstation converts, Murphy bed-style, into bunk beds.
If glass and steel are the cabin's primary visual components, Douglas fir isn't far behind. The wood's beauty and strength come shining through in the window frames and sleek kitchen cabinetry. Even the roof's exposed joists and plywood are engineered with Douglas fir.
"There's a golden quality to Douglas fir; it has a warmer tone than pine," said Jeff. "That straight grain is so uniform and strong. It's one of the top woods that you would use in a mast on a sailing ship."
The windows were manufactured by Manitoba-based Loewen Windows, and many are operable. Cross-ventilation opportunities abound, by design.
When the windows are closed, the cabin's interior is silent. When they're open, nature's stereophonic sound permeates the space. One of Jeff's favorite sounds is the honking, wing-flapping chorus from the half-dozen trumpeter swans nesting near the lake.
They're part of the wildlife that guests have sighted and cited, along with deer, badgers and a bear. What was once rows of monolithic crops is now a colorful quilt of nearly 40 types of grasses and wildflowers. In warm-weather months, the meadow is populated by butterflies and bumblebees.
Wagner's favorite aspect of MetalLark is its duality.
"You can have that view, and prospect out," he said. "But it also gives you a sense of refuge, that you can pull in and hunker down."
Energy sustainability was a primary goal. Cantilevered roof overhangs provide shade in the summer but allow winter sunlight to passively heat the building. The triple-pane windows were chosen for their energy efficiency, and a nearby 6-kilowatt solar array generates nearly all of MetalLark's power needs.
"Air conditioning is the largest electrical use," said Jeff. "What's great about solar is that it tends to produce the most on the days that you need it the most."
A second cabin, also designed by Wagner and dubbed LongHouse, was recently completed. The single-story structure — which crowns a lakeside bluff and features a dramatic screen porch — incorporates materials used at MetalLark, including corrugated metal siding.
"The two cabins have a commonality, but they each have their own unique design," said Wagner.
A third cabin is in the works, and the site's master plan ultimately envisions four rental properties.
MetalLark's doors opened in August 2021, and LongHouse welcomed its first guests in January. Their design-first philosophy is clearly registering with Airbnb-ers, because both properties are almost fully booked through early 2023. Guest feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, especially a 12-minute video valentine to MetalLark ("One of the most beautiful cabins in the world") from a short-term-rental super-enthusiast; watch it at https://bit.ly/3srra7o.
"We've already had a number of repeat guests, and that has been fun to see," said Jeff. "One person asked, 'Can I build a cabin for myself? I just want to be there.'"
About this project
What: The first of what will eventually be four vacation rental units (check them out at visitnordlys.com) on a 140-acre property near Frederic, Wis.
Size: New home build, 800 square feet on two levels; both levels have square footprints measuring 20 by 20 feet.
Architectural design firm: SALA Architects.
Project team: David O'Brien Wagner, AIA. Engineering by Kirk Davis, Meyer Borgman Johnson. Construction by One Cut Construction.