Case Study: Spring Harbor House by Johnsen Schmaling Architects

It’s no secret that there are more buyers interested in modern houses these days than there have been since the last century. But many don’t think they can afford to build their own new custom version, unless they’ve hit it big in Silicon Valley. That’s likely true if they want to build in Silicon Valley as well, but if they’re willing to look farther afield to locales like Wisconsin, they may find their dream is attainable. The trick is to find the talent that can turn the dream into a workable reality. 

The good news is that every state in this country has firms that can compete with the best coastal firms. That’s great for ordinary humans who want an architect-designed house, such as the clients for this project in Madison. They struck gold with Milwaukee’s Johnsen Schmaling Architects—one of the best firms not only in Wisconsin, but in the nation. 

Alas, they did stumble with a first attempt using a local firm, one that translated their request for a modest modern oasis into plans for a looming and bloated Prairie-style structure. The style is lovely, of course, when done properly, but it was not meant to be tall. The point was to harmonize with the horizontality of the Midwestern prairie. It was a solution particularly ill-suited to this steeply sloped lot. 

The clients discerned the misfit quickly and wisely moved on to Johnsen Schmaling. “They are super-modest people who wanted a small, unassuming house, so the previous plans were inappropriate,” says Sebastian Schmaling, AIA. “They wanted a house that emphasized aesthetics, quality, and details, too.” 

These qualities align perfectly with the firm’s interest in “radical simplicity,” which aims to reduce ornament and flourish to what’s essential to the structure of the building. And that structure—more often than not—is based on a system of stacked boxes.

The system enables a site solution that copes with elevation changes, while still delivering on the sleek vision of a low-slung, ground-hugging modern dwelling. These houses can somehow defy gravity by climbing vertically while still reading as largely horizontal. “In this case, the program was quite small, but it was a very difficult site,” Sebastian explains. “Our clients owned the land and an existing old stone house on the property. They subdivided the parcel and sold the old house with a reduced footprint. 

“We are seeing this more and more—the densification of the suburbs,” he continues. “But they found out from the zoning folks that what they were left with was a tiny buildable footprint for the new house. Even though the program was small, we needed every inch of the buildable area to fit it all in.”

Turnaround Strategy

The program was relatively compact to keep the house affordable without sacrificing careful detailing, but also because the clients are on the road a great deal. “They’re in sales and travel a lot, so they knew they didn’t need a huge house,” says the architect. But they did need a garage for their van and to store and organize their merchandise. They also wanted three bedrooms, to secure the home’s resale value.

Carving out real estate on the hilly site for the one-car garage and maneuvering room to enter it, however, was no small feat. “The northern edge of the driveway is steeply sloping, and we needed to create parking access,” Sebastian says. “A concrete retaining wall allows flat vehicular access, and the grass pavers are a compromise that a front yard should not be paved. That set up a nice plinth we could stack our boxes on top of, while not looking like a three-story block.” 

These deceptively simple “boxes” belie the careful attention and minute detailing invested in their design and execution. “We’re trying to develop a language with seemingly repetitive details,” he continues. “Structure, flashing, roof termination—each requires a unique response to make it work.” 

The repetition of detailing helps unify the whole, while also imbuing a sense of “serenity,” as the firm calls it. When materials do change in hue or application, they do so in a complementary way—such as the introduction of cedar siding within the openings for windows and doors. The cedar is installed vertically, like the painted paulownia siding. The subtle difference is the cedar is applied flat, while the paulownia is lapped and inset within a flat frame.

“The way we thought about these boxes was as continuous smooth frames,” says Sebastian. “The three-dimensional frame is filled in with vertical beveled siding. And there are no external pieces that don’t belong to the box itself—no additive pieces. The cedar is like the inside flesh of an apple you carve into to expose. Anytime we go beyond the thin surface layer, we use the cedar to create a distinction. It’s challenging to resolve no external pieces and to avoid the flatness that’s a danger with an approach like this.” 

Those “smooth frames” appear on the east and west façades, including the west-facing garage “box.” Within the flatness of the garage wall—in this case, thermally stable poly ash—the doors are barely discernible, blending into the overall pattern of siding. 

With even greater subtlety, the beveled paulownia siding changes direction in the frame of the second-level box, varying and enlivening the rhythm of shadows while maintaining the overall harmony of the components. “This is really hard compositionally to do,” says Sebastian. “It’s a fine dance. This is a very disciplined building. It’s very hard to do this reductive approach and make it look like simplicity.”


Like a lullaby, the repetition is reassuring and soothing—a perfect antidote to cacophonous days spent on the road. The interiors go even further in suppressing the visual noise—white oak floors, white walls, white Neolith counters, punctuated with warm, rich woods. 

The exterior’s cedar-wrapped openings come inside to form a “wood cradle” for the fireplace nook, and oak cabinetry stained to match keeps the balance on the opposite wall, expanding the cradle effect.

The floor plan is economical, eliminating redundant spaces while still providing little getaway zones—a glazed reading nook in the entry hall, for instance, that overlooks the forest beyond; a small terrace for al fresco enjoyment; a small patio off the lower level. 

This is what modern design does best when it’s done well—it turns down the noise of the outside world and cradles us in a calming embrace.

Spring Harbor House

Madison, Wisconsin

Architect: Johnsen Schmaling Architects, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Brian Johnsen, AIA, and Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, principals in charge; Matt Wendorf, Angelina Torbica, project team.

Builder: Aldo Partners, Verona, Wisconsin

Interior Designer/Landscape Architect: Johnsen Schmaling Architects, Milwaukee

Project Size: 2,090 square feet, plus 550 lower-level flex space

Site Size: 0.35 acre

Photography: John J. Macaulay

Key Products

Cabinetry: Custom

Cladding: AllPrime paulownia, cedar

Cooktop: Fisher & Paykel

Cooking Ventilation: Wolf

Countertops: Neolith

Dishwasher: Miele

Door Hardware: Inox

Entry Door: Quantum (pivot)

Fascias/Trim: Boral (poly ash siding)

Faucets: Franke (kitchen), Grohe (primary bath), Hansgrohe (secondary baths), Kohler (showers)

Fireplace: Regency City Series

Flooring: Havwoods, Blanco

Glass Railings: CRL TAPER-LOC

HVAC: Trane

Insulation: Dow

Landscaping: Wausau Tile (pavers), Soil Retention Drivable Grass

Lighting: WAC (exterior), Halo, Birchwood, JESCO

Lighting Control: Lutron

Microwave: Bosch

Paints/Stains: Sherwin-Williams

Refrigerator/Freezer: Fisher & Paykel

Roofing: Johns Manville JM TPO

Sinks: Ruvati (kitchen), Duravit (bathrooms)

Thermal and Moisture Barriers/Sheathing: Huber Engineered Woods ZIP System

Toilets: Duravit Darling

Tub: Lyons Linear

Ventilation: Panasonic

Washer/Dryer: Miele

Windows: Marvin

Window Wall Systems: Quantum

Wine Refrigerator: U-Line