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Chenequa Home Spirals in Control

Credits: ©2012 Robert Harvey Oshatz Architects

The Chenequa Residence is a single family home near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, designed by organic architect Robert Oshatz. The house is designed in response to the existing terrain and environment, sited on a wooded hill overlooking a lake, wrapping around the contours of the land, and set between the existing trees. Because the house uses a steel frame construction method, it was possible to free up large portions of the wall surfaces for glazing. Large expanses of windows provide sweeping views of the forest and lake, using heat mirror glass that out-performs triple glazing. A geothermal heat pump feeds the radiant floor heating, as well as air conditioning that controls the high humidity of a Wisconsin summer. However, most of the summer heat is mitigated by cross-ventilation; cooler outdoor air comes in from the lower ground floor off the lake and rises up through the atrium, exhausted through the upper third story. The upper stories are sheathed in accessible vegetated roofs, with the two most upper roofs scheduled to receive solar panels in 2013. In addition, the 1,800 square foot underground garage is covered with a 12” sod roof. The house was designed to be built in two phases; the first phase consists of the primary living areas, and the second phase will add an indoor swimming pool, an in-law’s suite and an entry way.


Chenequa from Lake

View from across the lake of the Chenequa Residence, a single family home near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, designed by organic architect Robert Oshatz. ©2012 Cameron Neilson / Oshatz Architecture

The central focus of the house is a large atrium that contains a three-story circular stone elevator core and a cantilevered spiral stair case that wraps around it. In the atrium space, the dynamic ceiling steps up as it wraps around the elevator core. Above, the roof is vegetated and has access through a door at the third floor level, with steps leading above the third floor area. Each of the stepped roof segments is separated by glass that form shallow "s" shapes; sunlight moves along the curves and through the glass throughout the day, acting as a sort of sundial.

A strict discipline was applied to the material pallet. Walls that touch the ground are clad in stone, and are usually raked to enhance their visual connection with the earth. Elements that do not have contact with the earth are clad in stucco. The window members are wood, as is the spiraling ceiling. Concrete floors are used throughout. A metal-clad cylinder houses the master bathroom, and wraps around the elevator core.

The house design is complex, but in keeping with the philosophy of organic architecture, there are no random elements. The design is governed by a strict geometric rationale. Where all curves are radial, which means that there are no free form curves in the building.

Almost everything in the building envelope is custom-designed and custom-made, revealing an extraordinarily large amount of architectural detailing. All work was done in-house, including every steel detail and even the details of every window frame. In all, there are nearly 1,000 details in the architectural drawings. The house also required innovative construction methods. One of the more unusual elements was creating the wall plates. Because the wall plates are often curved and derived from multiple centre points, it was difficult to use traditional string line methods. Consequently each wall plate was digitally cut by a CNC router to ensure that geometry was retained. The home was completed in early 2012. The home was built by Signature Builders of Wisconisn.

The following article was written by Andrew Boyne, Junior Architect to Robert Oshatz on the Chenequa project.
Chenequa Residence
On a heavily wooded site adjacent to a lake in Milwaukee’s western fringe,

Robert Oshatz was asked to design a home for a growing family.

A thin driveway meanders its way between cornfields and groves of oak

trees before presenting itself upon the house. From the approach, the

house looks small. The radial floor plan wraps itself around the face of the

sloping site and avoids all existing trees; reducing the house’s scale and

preventing it from ever being visible as a whole. The spiraling green roof

that twists itself around the stone elevator core also reduces the visual

height of the building.

The main entry to the house is located under the lowest segment of the

spiraling roof. Upon walking through the glass door, the compression of

the low entry explodes into a celebration of light and form. A large circular

opening in the floor exposes a new level below, while the low roof lifts and

spins out of view and is followed by a cantilevered staircase. A solid stone

core stands at the centre of it all, like a choreographer directing the dance

around it.

The entry level accommodates the house’s public spaces like the kitchen,

the lounge and the dining room, while the lower floor is used for the family-oriented spaces. The level above the entry hosts the master bedroom, an

ensuite and a nursery. A door opens out from the upper floor onto the roof,

which is made up of a series of stepping roof terraces that overlook the lake

and the surrounding landscape.

Oshatz believes providing connections between the internal spaces and the

exterior environment is beneficial to the occupant’s wellbeing. Frameless

glazing provides unobstructed views throughout the house to the lake

beyond. Natural materials are used to tie the house into its environment, as

quartz stone walls appear to grow out of the ground and hemlock ceilings

blend with the exterior tree canopy. Materials are carried seamlessly

through the glazing line to break down the definition between the interior

and the exterior, ensuring an uninterrupted flow of space between inside

and out.

The site originally contained a house that was unsuitable for the family’s

needs and was demolished. The owners recognized the site’s natural

beauty, however, and stressed the importance of retaining all of the trees

that existed on the site. The clients wanted a building, constructed from

natural materials, which acted as one with its environment and provided

unobstructed views and connections to the surrounding landscape.

Oshatz has developed a reputation for creating architecture that is inspired

by its environment. His projects, built across five US states and Japan,

are each unique responses to their sites and the requirements of the

clients. When asked about his approach to architecture, Oshatz states he

believes that “architecture should be at peace with its environment while the

occupants are at peace within”. The clients were drawn to Oshatz’s exciting

and dynamic forms and to his integration and respect for the surrounding


The Chenequa Residence has been designed to be constructed in two

phases. The extant building constitutes the first phase of construction

and includes the primary living areas for the family. The second phase of

construction to be undertaken at a later point will consist of a glass roofed

swimming pool area and a suite for visiting grandparents.

From the street there is little to suggest the Chenequa Residence exists. A

single lane drive surrounded by trees turns off the street and runs through

cornfields on either side. As the drive continues, it becomes increasingly

wooded with stands of oak trees. In the early hours of the morning, it is not

uncommon to encounter deer or wild turkeys while following the road. The

approach to the house leads up a small hill and onto a circular driveway

that was retained from the previous house. Upon ascending the hill, the

Chenequa residence emerges from across a grassed yard.

From first encounter, the house appears to be small; its stepping roof and

spiraling stone columns help to reduce its height and obscure its size.

Oshatz uses the geometry of the house to continually hide and expose new

parts of the building, simultaneously creating interest while concealing its

scale. From no single angle is it possible to comprehend the building as a


After parking on the circular driveway, the approach to the house is by foot

and follows a small stone wall which continues underneath a low hemlock

clad roof. Upon walking through the glass door, the compression of the low

entry explodes into a celebration of light and form. A large circular opening

in the floor exposes a new level below and the low roof lifts and spins out of

view, followed by a cantilevered staircase. A solid stone core stands at the

centre of it all, like a choreographer directing the dance around it.

The entry into the house also allows for an interesting juxtaposition of

environments. The approach to the house is down a driveway surrounded

by trees and across a lawn that feels like a meadow amongst a forest.

When entering the house, the lake finally becomes visible and dominates

the view. Endless floor to ceiling glass displays the lake while the roof

and floor planes appear to career outwards toward it. Even though the

house explores these two separate environments, it never feels stuck

between them. The removal of structure from the glazing line, the careful

continuation of materials through the glazing, and the spiral shape of the

house creates a space that has no directional emphasis and ensures that

connections to the exterior are provided in all directions.

By building into the site, entrance to the house is made on the second of

three floors. The entry level is provided with unobstructed views to the lake

and accommodates the public spaces of the building including the lounge

room, dining room and kitchen. These spaces are separated from the

main atrium by low ceilings that help to provide an intimate environment.

The plan of the house wraps itself around the convex topography of the

site which, when combined with the use of floor to ceiling glass, ensures

that magnificent lake views are seen from all the internal spaces. The floor

plan is continued out through the kitchen and onto a cantilevered deck

that extends out amongst the trees. A ribbon of curved steel balustrades

bends itself around the balcony and returns into a heavy stone garden

wall, effectively tying the floating floor plain back to the earth. On the other

side of the house, the helical stone wall that defines the lounge room twists

around a tall oak tree and ties the floor back to the ground in a similar


The floor below the entry level is designed for family-based functions.

Below the main atrium space is a games room, a small bar, a theatre

room and a small study. In the wing that follows under the kitchen are the

children’s bedrooms and a guest room. The communal family spaces

are dug below the ground and the view is always filtered by heavy stone

walls where they open up to the exterior. The children’s bedrooms are

afforded elevation and views by virtue of the sloping site but are bound by

stone and anchored to the ground. The circulation on the bottom floor is

also much more guarded than that provided to the public spaces above.

The bedrooms are accessed via a tall but thin corridor adorned only

with highlight windows. As one of the few spaces in the house without

commanding views, the corridor provides a sense of security and warmth.

Unlike the main atrium space, the bedrooms are more conventionally

scaled and shaped. They provide views to the lake, but only in one

direction. The bedroom at the end of the corridor is ensured privacy by its

height and an oversized expanse of ceiling to the underside of the deck

which extends out from the kitchen. Where the entry level is dedicated

to public functions and provided with views and open space, the family

oriented rooms on the floor below are provided with a sense of warmth and


The floor above the entry level is dedicated to the master suite and includes

a master bedroom, ensuite and a nursery. From the atrium, the upper

floor appears as a floating volume which wraps around the stone elevator

column. The carpeted floor, which differs from the stained concrete on the

lower floors, helps to isolate the upper floor from the lower levels. A planted

balcony extends out from the master bedroom, helping to enhance the

floating feeling. The bedroom and nursery are both provided with frameless glass, which gives uninterrupted views to the lake and the tree canopy. The stepping spiral room sweeps up over the main atrium it passes over the rooms at a low level, ensuring that they maintain a sense of warmth and protection. The master ensuite is built into a tubular shape that radiates out from the elevator core. The enclosed feeling of the ensuite provides a counterpoint to the openness of the master bedroom.

From the upper floor, a door opens out onto the roof segment which hangs

over the main entry to the house. As the roof spirals around the stone

elevator core, steps follow the roofs, turning each roof into a terraced

garden. Some roofs are fully planted, while others have paved areas for a

deck chair and umbrella. The highest roof section is about 80ft above the

lake and provides commanding views.

The clients had expressed at an early stage that they did not care for

symmetry. Oshatz removed any need for symmetry by utilizing a radial

plan for the house. The plan consists of a series of radiuses, with a number

of different centre points. To achieve a logical and harmonious plan

throughout the house, each radius is related. The primary radius wraps

itself around the contours of the site, following a path that avoids the need

to remove any trees. This radius also maintains a convex aspect to the lake,

which helps to make the house feel as if it is opening up to the views and

the landscape around it. The main axis is centred on a large oak tree that

dominates the site. Each subsequent radius responds to the geometry of

the others, resulting is spaces that feel at the same time free flowing, and


The house was designed to be visually small from the entry way, but

to utilize the steep slope of the site to provide maximum views and

connections to the lake. The resultant structure emerges from the earth as a

series of planes that glide horizontally along face of the hill side. Each plane

is unique, and no plane exactly follows any other; they appear to be light

weight and are separated only by glass. The roof planes, with a different

materiality to the floor planes, spin in their own unique pattern; helping

to provide intrigue and complexity to the design. The lightweight and

energetic horizontal planes are countered by the vertical stone volumes that appear to grow from the earth and help to anchor the building.

Constructing the various radiuses that make up the house would have

proven difficult with traditional construction techniques. To ensure the

maintenance of the design’s interrelated geometries and to aid in the

construction of the residence, the house was set out using survey points

taken directly from CAD drawings and all wall and roof plates were cut

using a digital CNC router. The ability to cut and locate components directly

from CAD drawings ensured a level of accuracy and speed that could not

otherwise have been achieved.

The pallet of materials is limited to a few that were chosen for their natural

beauty and their ability to tie the building into the natural environment. The

three primary materials used in the house are hemlock for the ceilings,

Idaho quartz chosen for its unique color and shimmer, and concrete floors

which have been stained a rusty earth color. Additionally, plasterboard is

used as a secondary material to contrast the heavy, anchoring, stone clad

walls, as its lightweight appearance maintains the independent feeling of

the horizontal floor planes and provides the necessary privacy between

rooms. Stucco is also used to highlight the edges of the floor planes and

to define the upper floor volume. Finally, painted metal is used to clad the

tubular form of the master ensuite, making it appear as an independent


The flow of space between the interior and the exterior of the building was

of primary concern during the design of the Chenequa Residence. It is

widely understood that connections with natural environments have very

positive outcomes for residents, and given the idyllic setting that the house

is sited, it became even more important that occupants felt connected

with their surrounding environment and not isolated within the structure.

Floor to ceiling glass is used extensively throughout the house and helps

to provide views, but it is the continuation of materials through the glazing

lines that helps to break down the boundaries between interior and exterior.

Traditional window framing details have been replaced by frames that are

concealed within the structure and behind the finish material, allowing

the material to run unaffected from the interior to the exterior. This helps

to dissolve the boundaries of the space. The removal of the structure

from the building skin is also helpful, as columns are brought within the

glazing line and can no longer reinforce the interior/exterior boundary. The

horizontal planes that appear as independent volumes also help to confuse

the boundary of the building. In some circumstances, it is even difficult to

identify exactly where the window glass is located.

The extent of glazing and the size of the house required a comprehensive

approach to sustainability. All windows are glazed with argon filled, triple

paned units. The glazing is also complimented by a thorough insulation

approach. The primary heating system utilizes radiant floor heating, which

is used throughout the house and is assisted by a ground source geothermal

system. The design also incorporates an advanced central heating

and cooling system which is able to use the latent temperature of unused

spaces to heat and cool areas that are occupied. The house has also been

designed to make the most of passive solar energy.

The Chenequa Residence is a result of an amalgamation between the

site, the building program, and the client. The building twists between the

exiting trees and appears to grow out of the hill, yet it has been designed

to perfectly suit the clients’ lives, values and tastes. With its generous use

of natural materials, the Chenequa Residence does not fit the white box

language that appears to be synonymous with contemporary residential

architecture. Yet, the building is undoubtedly contemporary. Its wonderful

geometry, its nearly complete transparency and its lightweight structure are

products of contemporary design and construction methods. Its clean lines

and uncluttered spaces speak of a contemporary lifestyle. Yet at its heart,

the Chenequa Residence is a home for a family. A family that now can live

in a house that celebrates and connects to the magnificent environment

which surrounds it. The house provides connections to the exterior, but

is warm, comfortable and inviting. In an increasingly urbanized world

that celebrates an increasingly urbanized approach to architecture, the

Chenequa Residence reminds us that human beings are innately tied to the

natural world, and that providing access and connections to that world can

ensure a rich and rewarding place for people to live.


  Chenequa Residence Case Study (4,361 kb)


Andrew T Boyne Architecture

Robert Harvey Oshatz (Portland, Oregon, USA)