Rob and Maxine's Airy Midwest Modern

Green Tour

Name: Robert and Maxine Wheat
Location: Monroe, Wisconsin
Years lived in: 9+

When architect Rob Wheat designed a home for his family in an established (yet eclectic) neighborhood in Monroe, Wisconsin, he made the most of what the small corner lot offered; he oriented the house for passive solar and to take advantage of shade from mature trees during muggy Wisconsin summers. But Rob also wanted to pay tribute to the regional modernist architects he admires. The result is a modern home with an open, light interior plus eco-friendly systems built for efficiency.

The home features an L-shaped footprint with a private courtyard in back. While, on the exterior, textures of concrete block, metal and rough cedar are combined in a building-block style, on the interior those building blocks melt away into open spaces with a central connecting stair. The south/southwest orientation allows for daylighting that keeps the home feeling warm and friendly, balancing the many industrial materials used.

Rob and his wife try to pass on lessons about living sustainably to their young sons wherever they can. Both husband and wife work from home so designing for efficiency made sense, as did living in the heart of their small town. They designed rain gardens to catch roof-water runoff and incorporated high-efficiency roof and wall construction, mechanicals and insulation.

But as an architect, Rob believes good design is as sustainable a feature as any expensive technology. Creating a home that people enjoy living in guarantees its existence for a long time to come.

Re-Nest Survey:

Our style: Modernist, but by no means purely so.

Inspiration: The works of many regional modernist architects: those who build upon vernacular forms, materials, and trades to marry regional specifics to modernist principles. They create beautiful works that are particular to their own cultures. Inspirational examples include: Miller Hull of the pacific northwest; Lake/Flato in Texas; Brian MacKay-Lyons in Nova Scotia; and Marlon Blackwell of Arkansas.

Favorite Element: The "honest" use of materials. For example, our load-bearing block walls are also the interior finish. I love the play of light and shadow across them.

Biggest Challenge: Our biggest challenge, and also our biggest failure, was trying to do too many things in a small footprint. Being an architect, my job is to distill client’s disparate ideas into a cohesive concept. For clients, I edit out things that don't reinforce their goals. Because I so often act as an impartial arbiter for others, I just assumed I could do the same for myself.

Biggest Embarrassment: That I’m still not done with the house. I always feel I need to explain myself and justify the condition of things to folks. Perhaps that is the curse: always wanting to refine a design.

What Friends Say: "I get first right of refusal if you ever decide to sell."

Proudest DIY: I lack the skills to be satisfied with my own handiwork. I leave execution to the pros and stick to designing and conceptualizing. (Although we did our own painting and staining.)

Biggest Indulgences: The primary shell and systems, burnished block-cavity wall construction, high-efficiency triple-glazed windows, and in-floor heat with a high-efficiency boiler (92 AFUE).

Best Advice: Build for yourself and not for resale. Among the reasons older homes still sell is that they were well built and have character, unlike so much new housing stock.

Green Elements/Initiatives:

  • We built in an establish neighborhood in lieu of a new subdivision or other lost rural "green-field" location. Both my wife and I work out of the home, so that’s a fairly sustainable leaping-off point.
  • We sited the house to the south/southwest in order to utilize passive solar. We use a lot of daylighting. There really aren’t many spaces where you can’t look out in (at least) two directions.
  • High-efficiency wall and roof construction. Aside from the insulated 15-inch-thick masonry walls, the framed walls have continuous exterior rigid insulation as well as the nominal 6-inch batts. The roof and exterior floor cantilevers have cavities filled with Icynene spray-foam insulation.
  • Cool metal roofing reduces summer thermal gains and, along with the metal siding, will typically contain 30% to 90% recycled content. It can also be recycled in the future.
  • Tripled-glazed and tinted windows
  • High-efficiency boiler (92 AFUE)
  • Energy Star appliances
  • Most light fixtures were outfitted with fluorescent lamps, and we are recently beginning the transition to LED lamps as well.
  • All roofs direct water to rain gardens, which reduce city storm-water loads as well as the amount of turf grass requiring mowing and maintenance.

    Favorite Green Element: The open stairs that connect all levels. While not designed to create a true siphon for heat, the stairwell does let heat accumulate, rise up from all levels, and get exhausted out naturally. It functions well enough for our needs, while still being an aesthetic feature with multiple functions (including being a library, thanks to bookcase guardrails). It also provides daylighting connections between floors.

    Resources:

    Appliances: Bosch dishwasher, Whirlpool Duet washer/dryer

    Mechanicals: Munchkin boiler, Buderus hot-water storage tank, Unico System blower module for supplemental heating and cooling, Lennox compressor/condenser, PureAir filtration and heat-recovery ventilator

    Windows: Triple-glazed and tinted spectrally neutral Pella windows, some with between-the-glass blinds

    Paint: Mautz (local company now a part of Sherwin-Williams)

    Flooring: Stained concrete, bamboo in living room and second floor, cork in loft

    Design firm: Senektekts, LLC

    (Thanks, Rob and Maxine!)

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    (Images: Senektekts)