Bruce and Ann McPheeters and their son Jeff strongly believe in the restorative powers of surrounding oneself in nature. So among northwestern Wisconsin's rolling hills and prairies, where they have a family cabin, they set out to build remote vacation rental cabins that could serve as a respite for others needing rest and recuperation.

"We just started exploring kind of a radius around the family cabin and started searching for land," Jeff said.

They found the ideal place: 140 acres of hills and prairie near Frederic, Wis., where they could build a few cabins, each distinct and separate from the others.

For one of the cabins, they envisioned a single-story, two-bedroom, Americans with Disabilities Act-friendly space. "It could be used by two couples or a family, but also if somebody wanted to come who, say, had a caretaker, there would be a bedroom where that person could stay," Jeff said.

What transpired is a rural retreat called LongHouse, named a 2023-2024 Home of the Month winner in the Star Tribune/American Institute of Architects Minnesota residential design contest. Judges lauded SALA Architects for the Minneapolis-based firm's surprising design decisions that also played to the natural surroundings.

The McPheeterses weren't surprised by the accolade, noting that architect David Wagner changed how they viewed the property.

"We had in our mind where we would place the cabin," Jeff said. "And it turns out that we didn't build anything anywhere near where we thought we would because some of those corridors would have been north-facing and not get much light, and he also had us thinking about seasonal elements."

Under two roofs

Wagner and his team took cues from the site's topography and geography. They zeroed in on an area overlooking a small lake and canopied by trees, which could provide cooling during hot summer days. The spot was also surrounded by a picturesque prairie, 20 acres of former cropland that the McPheeterses, alongside Minnesota Native Landscapes, restored using 40 native plant species.

However, as serene as the setting was, the site posed challenges.

"It's on this bluff edge overlooking the lake and it's a very forested edge. Then there's a ravine and a series of creeks," Wagner said. "Those were the kind of elements that we were trying to respond to in terms of the overall shape of the building. And then there were two oak trees that we didn't want to disturb."

The workaround? Build a cabin with two interconnected wings that "bend" around the existing red and white oaks. Choosing that design approach paid off in spades.

"It was a little bit more subservient to the trees on the site, but it also helped orient spaces so that it opened up a lot of corners to the views instead of one main view straight out to the shoreline," Wagner said.

Inside, outside moves

Wagner designed the cabin with roof overhangs to help shade the building. In the wing housing the great room and a bedroom, he built a shed roof with clerestory windows, which invite daylight and cross-ventilation.

On the lake side, Wagner stretched floor-to-ceiling windows to the corners to provide panoramas of the water with minimal disruption.

"I'm using standard residential windows in a much cleaner way so that you get that same kind of visual connection," said Wagner. "You feel immersed in your landscape."

The quest for uninterrupted panoramas led to another unexpected feature: structural beams and columns placed on the exterior rather than interior, which Wagner said added visual interest.

"Structurally, you need to hold up the roof, so by pulling this exoskeleton of beams and columns and brackets, they get to see that direct connection of gravity of the roof being held up by beams and columns," he said. "It's almost like an ornament, but it's an ornament that's very functional — and the separation of those two also frees up the window system."

Stretching across

In another out-of-the-box move, the team built a freestanding porch a few feet away, connected physically to the cabin via a wooden boardwalk and visually by using the same corrugated steel siding and Douglas fir. A butterfly roof complements the great room's soaring roofline.

"It's a continuity of the experience of the building stretched over here. While it's a separate building, it's still physically connected with the same kind of walking surface and materiality," Wagner said.

Jeff said he appreciates how it allows guests to better enjoy the site.

"It makes it a different destination when there's that extra little thing where you actually exit the cabin and walk on the boardwalk over a dry creek bed to the porch," he said. "It's just one more example of something that people don't do in their day-to-day lives when in their homes."

Jeff said the new cabin feels distinct yet connected to a first cabin they built on the property. While the cabins have vastly different styles and settings, they both incorporate corrugated steel siding, which Jeff loves for how its patina develops with age and camouflages into the landscape. Another durable material the cabins share, Douglas fir wood, adds a warming element. (The first cabin, called MetalLark Tower, was also designed by Wagner and earned a 2021-2022 Home of the Month nod as spotlighted in a March 2022 Star Tribune article.)

Now that LongHouse is up and running, guests are finding a type of cabin culture that is all about tranquility.

"One thing people talk about the most is just the quiet of this particular setting. The fact that there's no cabin on the other side of the pond and there's no light pollution, there's no noise pollution from Jet-Skis or boats," Jeff said. "So, yeah, people say they've loved coming here because it's kind of a forest bathing."

In other words, a place to be at one with nature, just as the McPheeterses intended.

About this project

Designing firm: SALA Architects.

Design team: David Wagner, AIA; Roderick Vahr.

Project partners: General contractor One Cut; Christian Soltermann, principal, Align Structural.