2014 Recipient | AIA Housing Awards

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Topo House | Notes of Interest

The Topo House was designed for a biomedical engineer and his wife, a sculptor and installation artist. After living for two decades in an old converted church in downtown Madison, the couple, both avid bikers, decided to relocate to the countryside to be closer to nature and have direct access to Wisconsin’s expansive network of bike trails. The program asked for a quiet, unassuming home nestled in its natural context, a place with ambiguous boundaries between interior and exterior.

Echoing the dramatic surface deformations that occur when wind blows over the crops and grasses of the surrounding prairie, the building skin – a high-perfomance ventilated rainscreen system with concrete fiber panels – is organized by 190 individually shaped, black-anodized aluminum fins of interrelated contracting and expanding shapes. Depending on the time of the day and the angle from which they are viewed, the fins create a constantly changing veil whose shifting geometry subverts the volumetric simplicity of the house itself.

The house is built around a palette of sustainable and highly durable materials to make this a “house for life,” featuring an envelope that is designed to endure the continuous onslaught of the Midwest’s severe weather conditions and extreme temperature fluctuations. Copper, concrete, and anodized aluminum dominate the exterior palette, allowing the house to age gracefully. The structure itself was engineered to the stricter standards of the commercial building code in anticipation of the area’s increasingly violent, tornado-strength storms.p>

The local climate, with its very cold winters and hot, humid summers, required a careful mix of active and passive design strategies to ensure proper interior conditioning. The vegetated roof over the lower portion of the house minimizes stormwater run-off and further increases the envelope’s thermal performance. The house is equipped with Energy Star-rated appliances and LED fixtures throughout to minimize total energy loads; an area along the site’s southern perimeter is designated for Solar PV arrays to generate about 33% of the building’s calculated electric power needs. Materials were carefully selected based on a number of criteria, including durability, low toxicity, and environmental characteristics (sustainable, recycled, rapidly renewable). Preference was given to materials that were locally or regionally sourced and manufactured, including the rainscreen panels, windows, lumber, plumbing fixtures, and pavers.

Additional Credits

  • Structural Engineer: Larson Engineering, Inc.
  • Photo Credit: © Johnsen Schmaling Architects

Topo House

Category: One and Two Family Custom Residences

Jury Comments

Simply beautiful Wisconsin home. Inventive and hardy cladding echos prairie feel of rolling grasses.

The house merges with the earth...from the large design moves like the green roof to the smaller design elements like the shape of the metal rain screen emulating waving prairie grass.

Sits beautifully on the rolling prairie.

2014 Housing Awards Jury

  • Nancy Ludwig, FAIA, Chair
  • ICON architecture, inc.
  • Charlestown, Massachusetts
  • David Barista
  • Building Design+Construction
  • Arlington Heights, Illinois
  • Louise Braverman, FAIA
  • Louise Braverman Architect
  • New York City
  • Jean Rehkamp Larson, AIA
  • Rehkamp Larson Architects, Inc.
  • Minneapolis

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