Topo House

Topo House

In the waning years of the Pleistocene geologic epoch, during a period popularly known as the Ice Age, a large portion of southern Wisconsin escaped the advance of massive glaciers. Now called the “Driftless Area,” the region is noted for its rolling hills, deep river valleys, and magnificent vistas. Near Blue Mounds, a town outside Madison named for the highest point in southern Wisconsin and Blue Mound State Park, Johnsen Schmaling Architects designed a 3,300-square-foot home that peels up out of the landscape.

“Out here, you don’t feel like you’re in Wisconsin,” said Brian Johnsen, principal in charge. “It’s more like you’re in the foothills of the Cascades or big-sky Montana,” he said. “That influenced how we thought about the structure.” Johnsen Schmaling Architects often describes its work as “informed by a reading of site and terrain.”


In this case, Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling “abstracted the landscape” into a series of “folded planes” or “artifacts that fold in or pop out,” then “translated that into architecture: a simple concept of something rising out of the ground—a bent plane, a gesture—peeling away from the land.”

The architects organized the program into two staggered parallel bars burrowed into and rising up out of the ground. Underground are a video-art studio and mechanical room. The house ramps up via five individual floor plates separated by several steps through another art studio, guest room, and master bedroom, and living, dining, and kitchen areas, progressing to a small observatory at the top.

Protected and unsheltered outdoor rooms, patios, and courtyards act as transitions between the public and private areas of the house. A continuous ribbon of copper roof, ending in a dramatic cantilever over the large south-facing terrace, “normalizes” the building’s “amorphous footprint,” said Johnsen. The home’s exterior—a ventilated rainscreen system with concrete fiber panels organized into 190 black-anodized aluminum fins of interrelated shapes—was inspired by the ways in which wind moved across the landscape.

“Every time we drove in to the site, we’d observe how still it was one moment, then very windy, changing the surface of the grasses and alfalfa growing nearby,” said Johnsen. “So we decided to give the exterior of the house an ever-changing appearance. The facade also interacts with cloud cover, sun, and shadow, time of day, and the changing winds.” Juxtaposed with and stabilizing the facade’s shifting “veil” are textured, cast-in-place concrete walls.


Bathroom Fixtures
Kitchen Cabinets
Kitchen Faucets
Exterior Lighting

The boundaries between the “perception of a built architectural form and the landscape are also bridged through the house’s green roof, and the courtyards and outdoor rooms,” said Johnsen. “By integrating the rolling topography into the house, it appears to evolve or morph out of the landscape, creating ambiguity about where building begins and landscape ends.”

Sustainability was integral, as well. The house is heated and cooled by a closed-loop geothermal system. The building’s narrow footprint ensures cross-ventilation and minimizes cooling loads. A soy-based, closed-cell foam insulation was incorporated into the rainscreen walls. The green roof minimizes stormwater run-off and further increases the building envelope’s thermal performance, while a re-circulating hot water system and low-flow fixtures keep water consumption at a minimum. When the homeowners, a biomedical engineer and an artist, are ready, they can wire in solar panels that will be positioned on the south side and produce up to 33 percent of their energy needs.

The house’s owners also live, part-time, in a converted church in Madison. Avid bicyclists and cross-country skiers, “they like the duality of their urban residence in the middle of everything,” Johnsen said, “and this house, remote and solitary, away from it all, in the middle of nothing but an open landscape.”