The trouble with building on unspoiled terrain is, well, spoiling it. When a nature-loving couple showed Johnsen Schmaling Architects their plot of land in the rolling hills of rural Wisconsin, the designers realized that any structure built on the site could be seen by hikers at the top of the adjacent Blue Mound State Park.

In response, the firm came up with Topo House, a hill- hugging landform of a structure that rises like a zigzagging ramp out of a grassy incline. They configured it as two thin bars, slightly offset, that gradually climb the slope of the site. At the house's highest point, an observatory pops out of the copper roof like a squared-off modernist periscope, and, at its lowest, a vegetated rooftop merges with the hillside. “It's almost like a microcosm of what the landscape does around it,” principal Sebastian Schmaling says of the 3,300-square-foot steel, concrete, and wood structure. The cladding—a concrete-fiber-panel rainscreen striated with black anodized-aluminum fins—is a kind of microcosm of the land as well. The fins peak at different points, yielding an undulating texture that casts shifting shadows and mimics waves of windblown grass.

Inside, the floor plan feels like that of a single-story house, but pulled apart and staggered, as if a split-level ranch kept splitting. The architect used five separate floor plates (all, save for a partly submerged basement level, slab on grade) linked by short sets of stairs. Visitors enter through the house's lower half, via a courtyard and a glass-fronted foyer that shows off the couple's contemporary art collection. The foyer, sandwiched between the master suite to the north and an art studio to the south, sends visitors up a short set of steps that leads to another courtyard. The rest of the house unfolds southward, rising with the hill to progress from a neutral gray kitchen to the simple white dining and living rooms, where the roof cantilevers over a terrace to frame the view. Like gaps in the tree canopy on a hiking trail, tall, narrow slot windows offer teasing glimpses of the outdoors that open up at the house's glazed endcaps. A staircase in the dining room leads to the glassed-in observatory. “It's a journey through the space rather than having everything presented to you at the same time,” says Schmaling.

Gross square footage: 2,940 square feet

Completion Date: 2013


Johnsen Schmaling Architects
1699 N. Astor Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
Phone: 414.287.9000

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Brian Johnsen, AIA, and Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, LEED AP

Interior designer:
Johnsen Schmaling Architects

Larson Engineering

General contractor:
Yahara Builders, LLC

John J. Macaulay

CAD system, project management, or other software used:
AutoCAD, SketchUp



Structural system
Reinforced concrete foundation; hybrid steel and wood frame.

Exterior cladding
CBF concrete fiber board


Moisture barrier:

Other cladding unique to this project:

Built-up roofing:
Johns Manville


Wood frame:
Marvin and Custom

1' Low-E argon-filled insulated glass


Wood doors:

Top-Hinged Garage Door:
Schweiss Hydraulic Door

Door Hardware:
Schlage, Amerock

Interior finishes
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Bulthaup (kitchen); custom

Paints and stains:
Benjamin Moore (Aura and Regal series)

Floor and wall tile:
Glasshues (bathroom walls)

Interior ambient lighting:
Juno, Iris

Juno, Iris


Bathroom Sinks:

Plumbing Fixtures:

Kitchen Faucet:

Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
'Waterfurnace' Geothermal closed loop system (heating and cooling)
'Biofoam' soy-based closed cell expanding foam insulation
'SummerAire: Heat Revovery Ventilator
'Paveloc' Permeable Pavers

Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:
Fa'ade Fins: Custom CNC-fabricated, black anodized aluminum