Wisconsin rental cabin tower architecture is ‘part of the destination’
When Bruce and Ann McPheeters and their son Jeff decided to get into the vacation rental business, they wisely emphasized design as a strategy to differentiate their new business 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 began with a search for land near their longtime family cabin in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, which resulted in a 140-acre piece of land that ticked off many of the must-haves on their wish list. The hilly area includes a finger-shaped lake, long-time cropland that could be turned into grassland, rocky outcrops, and forests of pine, oak, and maple.
“With its prairies, forests, and water, you get a little taste of all of Wisconsin,” Jeff said. “You have an idea of all the biomes.”
They realized the best way to show the landscape to its best advantage was to build, and that’s the genesis of the Star Tribune/AIA Home of the Month winner they call MetalLark Tower.
The McPheeters contacted David O’Brien Wagner of SALA Architects. Wagner was behind a 2014-2015 AIA Home of the Month winning home near Lake of the Islands in Minneapolis, and his design made a memorable impression on Jeff.
“From the start, I felt like we all spoke the same language about how you can connect a building to nature,” Wagner said. “It was pretty clear that their affinity for design was compatible with mine.”
No kidding. For starters, the McPheeters had long admired several cabins that had been fashioned from fire towers. Wagner, who spent countless hours hiking in the mountains of his home state of Washington before marrying a Minnesotan and moving to the Twin Cities, developed an enduring fascination with shaped fire towers. forest sentinel. Bingo.
Beyond the appeal of paying homage to an iconic building type or creating an opportunity to soak up views of the beautiful Wisconsin countryside, there was a practicality to taking to the skies: the novelty of a tower cabin is complete. Instagram bait. It is a business, after all. One that is powered by social media.
Also, the prospect of creating a vertical cabin sounded like a lot of fun.
“Anyone who’s ever played with building blocks wants to build a tower,” Jeff said. Wagner agrees. “It wasn’t a hard sell when they said, ‘Hey, let’s take a ride,'” he said with a laugh.
“A big part of the design process was walking the terrain,” Wagner said. “It got us thinking about opportunities for views and where the sun is going.”
After long studies, the decision was made to place the hut on a slope, nesting it in a row of trees. Integrated views of the site are accentuated by the height of the cabin.
This upward shift has created structural challenges. As a solution, Wagner turned to steel, an unusual building material – for residential construction, anyway – working with engineer Kirk Davis of Meyer Borgman Johnson.
“I can’t give Kirk enough credit,” Wagner said. “Everything we talked about from an architectural and aesthetic point of view, it helped us manifest in real life.”
After being made by Northshore Steel in Two Harbors, Minn., the beams and posts were assembled, Erector Set style, in one day, by a crane and a crew of five. This frame – which is anchored by formidable concrete pillars – is the exoskeleton on which the insulated wooden frame of the cabin is fixed.
“We have super cold winters and no steel is going through the heated building envelope,” Wagner said. “The steel is doing its job of holding the building together, but there is no thermal energy transfer.”
Less really is more. With its clean steel profile, form follows function, MetalLark looks like it could belong in the portfolio of modernist titan Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, listed under “L” for “luxury duck blind”.
“Several friends have asked me if they can come and hunt from the second floor,” Jeff said. For the curious, the answer is “no”.
Clean Nordic lines
The muscular, steel-propelled verticality of the cabin is tempered by a horizontal element that moves boldly from outside in, then out.
Guests access the cabin through 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 juts dramatically out of the cabin, ending in bench.
“I’m always intrigued by the choreography of interesting movements through a building and through space,” Wagner said. “This gesture of crossing, entering and then leading to a point of stasis is a very powerful notion for me.”
The minimalist spirit of the interior maximizes connections with 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 adjoining walls.
This steel is designed to rust when exposed to the elements, a stylish and low-maintenance choice. The cabin’s service core – bathroom, laundry room, staircase – is discreetly tucked away behind this opaque wall.
Due to the slope of the site, the ground floor of the hut is in fact its second floor; below, at ground level, is space for mechanics, storage and a storm shelter. Besides an entrance space, most of the ground floor is occupied by the bedroom – separated from the hallway by a sliding barn door – and the bathroom.
The views really appear upstairs, where a multipurpose room includes a fully equipped kitchen. The airy, loft-like opening that results from three walls of glass is accentuated by 11-foot-high ceilings.
There’s not a square inch wasted and usability is a major theme. For example, a small workstation transforms, from a murphy bed style, into a bunk bed.
If glass and steel are the main visual components of the cabin, the Douglas fir is not far behind. The beauty and strength of wood shines through in window frames and sleek kitchen cabinets. Even the exposed joists and plywood of the roof are designed with Douglas fir.
“There’s a golden quality to Douglas fir; it has a warmer tone than pine,” Jeff said. “That straight grain is so even and strong. It’s one of the best woods you would use in a mast on a sailboat.”
The windows were manufactured by the Manitoba company Loewen windows, and many are usable. Cross-venting possibilities abound, by design.
When the windows are closed, the cabin interior is quiet. When open, the stereophonic sound of nature pervades the space. One of Jeff’s favorite sounds is the honking, wing-flapping chorus of the half-dozen trumpeter swans that nest near the lake.
They are among the wildlife that guests have seen and mentioned, along with deer, badgers and a bear. What were once rows of monolithic crops are now a colorful quilt of nearly 40 types of grasses and wildflowers. During the warm months, the prairie is populated with butterflies and bumblebees.
Wagner’s favorite aspect of MetalLark is its duality.
“You can have that view and prospect,” he said. “But it also gives you a sense of refuge, which you can pull up and crouch on.”
Energy sustainability was a primary objective. Cantilevered roof overhangs provide shade in summer but allow winter sunlight to passively heat the building. The triple-glazed windows were chosen for their energy efficiency, and a nearby 6 kilowatt solar panel generates nearly all of MetalLark’s power needs.
“Air conditioning is the biggest consumer of electricity,” Jeff said. “The great thing about solar power is that it tends to produce the most on the days when you need it the most.”
A second cabin, also designed by Wagner and named the LongHouse, was recently completed. The single-story structure — which crowns a lakeside bluff and features a dramatic porch — incorporates materials used at MetalLark, including corrugated metal cladding.
“Both cabins have one thing in common, but they each have their own unique design,” Wagner said.
A third hut is in preparation and the master plan for the site provides for four rental buildings in the long term.
MetalLark’s doors opened in August 2021 and LongHouse welcomed its first guests in January. Their design-first philosophy clearly resonates with Airbnb users, as both properties are nearly fully booked through early 2023. Guest feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, especially a 12-minute video on MetalLark (“One of the most beautiful cabins in the world”) from a super-lover of short-term rentals; watch it at https://bit.ly/3srra7o.
“We’ve had a number of regular guests already, and it’s been fun to watch,” Jeff said. “One person said, ‘Can I build myself a cabin? I just want to be there.'”
About this project
What: The first of what will eventually be four vacation rental units (check them out on visitnordlys.com) on a 140-acre property near Frederic, Wis.
Cut: New house of 800 square feet on two levels; both levels have square footprints measuring 20 by 20 feet.
Architectural Design Agency: SALA Architects.
Group project: David O’Brien Wagner, AIA. Engineering by Kirk Davis, Meyer Borgman Johnson. Construction by One Cut Construction.