Up North, Looking East: A Reclaimed Timber Japanese-Style House in Wisconsin

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Patricia, a cooking and baking enthusiast, wanted a large kitchen designed for entertaining. She opted to forego upper cabinets so she could take advantage of the kitchen's gorgeous views. Patricia says the trade-off had the added benefit of forcing her to limit the amount of stuff she keeps in her kitchen.
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The beauty of the woods surrounding their family home inspired Alex (pictured) and Gordon Greene to learn to sustainably maintain its health and wellness. In managing the forest, Alex follows the Full Vigor Forestry philosophy developed by Wisconsinite Jim Birkemeier, which advises foresters to forget about complex forestry concepts and “instead get to know your own woods—and watch closely.” Alex says of his forest, “common sense has emerged as our most valuable guiding principle.”
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Although it is built with materials and methods not typical in North America, the Greenes’ Wisconsin home looks the part of an idyllic cottage in the woods.
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The Greenes’ son, Alex, oversaw construction of the timber frame and sustainable forest management. He used red oak, elm, walnut and cherry from the home’s wooded site to build the post-and-beam structure that defines the home. By leaving intact whole trees that otherwise would be considered unusable, Alex was able to mimic a Japanese minka’s lightness and sculptural qualities.
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Though traditional minka do not have elaborate fireplaces, they do include a central fire space, specially designed so the smoke could rise and escape through the roof. To mimic this, Patricia and Gordon installed a wood-burning stove set into a stone chimney. The chimney’s thermal mass helps retain heat in winter and preserve evening coolness during hot summer days.
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The beauty of the woods surrounding their family home inspired Alex and Gordon Greene to learn to sustainably maintain its health and wellness.

In traditional minka–the humble dwellings of Japanese farmers, artisans and merchants–carpenters made use of what the upper classes overlooked, often bent and irregular wood that was cheap and locally available. Over centuries, Japanese carpenters developed an elegant interlocking framing system that unites crooked pieces of lumber in a dynamic, happenstance dance. Inside a minka, the sum is more than the parts. And every part is unique.

Gordon and Patricia Greene, longtime Zen students who have spent considerable time in Japan, set out to capture the spirit of minka–creating serenity and beauty out of the materials around you–without creating a Japanese-style house. The Greenes paid homage to minka design by culling every construction material for their timberframe home in southwestern Wisconsin from the surrounding woods. Made up of the weak trees they removed to make the forest healthier, the home is a testament to the potential and perfection in natural materials often deemed worthless. Gordon and Patricia gauge their success by the reactions of their frequent Japanese guests. “It’s always wonderful to watch them,” Gordon says. “They do a double take. They know they’re not in Japan, but the feeling is there.”

The Perfect Setting

Gordon and Patricia had a longtime interest in designing their own home, a fascination that runs in Gordon’s family. His grandfather had an early Frank Lloyd Wright home built, and his parents built several different styles of homes as Gordon was growing up. When he and Patricia left Hawaii for Wisconsin to be near family in 2006, part of their motive was to design their own home, and they were determined to find the perfect setting–one that provided a connection with nature and local construction materials.

Though they had searched for the right piece of Wisconsin land several times when visiting, the couple ended up buying their 110 acres near Taliesin (Wright’s famous Wisconsin home) sight unseen. When their realtor called to say the rare and desirable wooded location had come up for sale, Gordon and Patricia asked a friend to drive from Madison and take a look. He declared the land pristine and beautiful, and the Greenes snapped it up. When the friend visited Gordon and Patricia in Hawaii a couple of weeks later, he brought walnuts from the property. The couple knew the durable, beautiful wood of walnut trees would be ideal for building their home and providing the basis of a managed forest. “I felt like it was meant to be,” Patricia says.

A Design Emerges

Though they knew their goals for the home, Patricia and Gordon weren’t sure how to get it on their own, so they invited Len Brackett, a California-based home designer and master carpenter trained in classic Japanese temple carpentry, to camp on their land with them for a weekend. As the three sat around a campfire talking philosophy and practicalities, Brackett drew sketches and shuffled modular pieces of paper representing tatami mats (which are the unit of measurement in traditional Japanese design) until a floorplan emerged.

A minka is divided into two sections: an earthen-floored doma, which houses the kitchen and is open to workers and tradespeople; and a raised private area about 20 inches above doma level, which is covered with tatami mats and houses the family’s living quarters. “That concept really worked for us,” Gordon says. The Greenes needed a public space to entertain and feed at least 25 people at a time, but Gordon and Patricia also wanted private space for sleeping, relaxing, meditating and working. Brackett left them with sketches incorporating these wishes, and the Greenes turned the project over to local designer Amber Westerman to produce working drawings. Local contractor Rick Hansen oversaw construction. The Greenes’ son, Alex, whose company Red Beard Woodworks and Artisan Building makes floors and homes from local, sustainable wood, took on building the timber frame solely from trees on the site.

Strong Home, Stronger Forest

The friend who reviewed their property was only partially right–Gordon and Patricia’s wooded land was beautiful, but it was far from pristine. It had been logged and grazed, and the second-growth forest was infested with invasive trees and plants. Following the Full Vigor Forestry philosophy, a system of sustainable forest management developed by Wisconsinite Jim Birkemeier, Gordon and Alex are nurturing a stronger forest by removing dead, dying and stagnant trees to make room for healthier stock. Their first pruning–walnut out of the hedgerow, red oaks lost to disease and cherry felled during a storm–yielded the logs for Gordon and Patricia’s house.

“I really liked the process of using trees from the site,” Alex says. “The initial product is inchoate–beautiful but not useful as it is. We put labels on it, whether it’s straight or crooked, good for lumber or not. But these are designations we apply as humans–there’s a resource in that wood, all the same. It’s interesting to take a product with no form or definition and put it to use structurally and aesthetically.”

Though he knew Western mortise-and-tenon joinery, Alex had never milled and worked with Japanese-style timbers. “The Japanese have an intact framing joinery system that’s been passed down for 2,000 years,” he says. “It’s extremely sophisticated, with unbelievable attention to detail. There was no way I could employ it without years of training, but by studying the Japanese methods, I could make this house function the way we wanted it to. We used the Japanese structural form but employed methods accessible to us.”

Alex is most proud of the timber frame’s curved beams, which lend elegance to the great room. “Like the farmers of centuries ago, we took non-merchandisable timber and made a beautiful structure through attention to detail,” he says. “In a way, it’s sculptural. We spent a lot of time shaping timbers for structural requirements and aesthetics. We wanted to make them elegant.”

For Gordon, the framing process yielded delightful surprises and unexpected freedoms. He enjoys the structure’s asymmetry and honesty, and the use of lighter posts under heavier beams, which gives a counterintuitive lightness to the interior. Unlike conventional lumber, scrap trees are not perfectly solid and even from one end to the other. Those imperfections allowed for unanticipated gifts as the joinery came together. “It’s really beautiful the way a timber will line up with another timber,” Gordon says. “If we’d consciously said we wanted it that way, we would have screwed it up.”

Just Right

Burrowed into the hillside with the main living space on the second story, Gordon and Patricia’s home includes a 4-foot-deep Japanese soaking tub off the master bedroom and a chef’s kitchen with a large gas stove for cooking and baking.

“I live in my kitchen,” Patricia says. She rejected conventional design wisdom–that she shouldn’t put her kitchen on the home’s warmer west side, which has the best views–and eschewed cupboards to make room for windows. Less storage means Patricia has less stuff, and she’s fine with the trade-off.

“Now I get to look outside at this wonderful view down the hillside,” she says. “When I bake cookies at Christmas time, I can look out at the snow and feel like I’m the queen of the mountainside.”

If his wife’s kitchen feels like a secure command post, Gordon says their home feels like a wonderful set of clothes. “It’s very comfortable, provides strength, and is something we love wearing,” he says. “It’s just right.”

After Robyn Griggs Lawrence got caught in a harrowing Wisconsin blizzard with Editor Jessica Kellner, she vowed to only visit the beautiful state in summer.

The Zen of Building

Longtime students of the Zen school of Buddhism, Gordon and Patricia Greene studied at the Daihonzan Chozen-ji temple in Honolulu. Established in 1972 by Omori Sogen Roshi and Tanouye Tenshin Roshi, the temple is “a place of Zen training where persons of any race, creed or religion who are determined to live in accordance with Buddha Nature may fulfill this need through intensive endeavor.”

The Greenes wanted to incorporate the principles of their Zen study into their Wisconsin home. One principle that guided the design and construction was to “give life” to all the materials used in the building–which entailed paying careful attention to reducing scrap and finding creative uses for materials that might not otherwise be considered useful.

Good, Local Wood

Alex and Gordon Greene started Red Beard Woodworks and Artisan Building to manage the family’s woodlot and find commercial use for their hardwood lumber in 2006. Alex has developed Red Beard into a full-service custom sawmilling, hardwood flooring and local wood construction company. We asked him a few questions about wood sourcing and why it matters.

How does your forest grow?

In many ways, small woodlot management is similar to gardening. By watching and tuning in to our trees, we develop an intuitive sense of what’s healthy, what’s too cramped, and so forth. By working in our own woods year after year, we have the benefit of watching and checking our progress. If we’re in doubt as to whether a tree needs to come out, we have the luxury of leaving it there, measuring its diameter, and then assessing the following year whether the tree is happy and growing well and better left with its brothers and sisters or removed.

Why should people use local wood?

The average 2,000-square-foot home in the United States uses about 1 acre of clear-cut timber from forests in Canada. We live in an area where so much land is forested. I’m not a complete Luddite, but if people aren’t building their houses with the stuff they see all around them, we’ve really lost something. There’s a real disconnect between what you’re building for yourself and its origin in the natural world. I’m trying to unite those things.

What makes you happy about your work?

It’s often our pleasure to be able to walk in the woods with customers and clients and help them see that they, too, are qualified to make commonsense determinations about their priorities there.

Learn more: Red Beard Woodworks and Artisan Building