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From Earth to rebirth
Building a green home on the site of a former brownfield gives owner opportunity to travel more lightly



The main living space is designed to be multifunctional, architect Russell LaFrombois III says. "It had to be very comfortable, very warm and inviting where you could sit and read a book or throw a party.  It had to be everything." Homeowner Julilly Kohler has integrated art, books and objects from her many travels into the room.

When Julilly Kohler curls up in a comfortable chair near her fireplace reading from her grandfatherís cherished book collection on the shelves beside her, itís more than a Rockwellian moment.

Itís the result of a decade of planning for a sustainable urban house, hours and hours of idea sessions with her architect, Russell LaFrombois III, and a ruthless editing of a lifetime of possessions she has collected in her travels. "One of the biggest things I learned in this move is how burdensome possessions are. Itís easier to live with less," Kohler says. "Itís an ongoing lesson."

Anyone who has built a house will say the building process is a learning experience. Not only did Kohler educate herself on straw bale construction, green roofs and solar chimneys, she also gave serious thought how the design of her house should reflect whatís important to her. "One of the things I learned is that you really want to pick what you want to do with your time and make it so itís easy to do that. You need to make sure you work with an architect who is willing to understand where you are going with that concept," she says. "When you move in, suddenly you can live your life in a different way."

The books, for instance, were always special to her, but in her old house she passed by them for years without having any interaction with them. Now the classics from the Limited Editions Club that date back to the 1920s and hold illustrations from the likes of Pablo Picasso and Grant Wood, are within armís reach. "I found myself deep into the autobiography of Ben Franklin the other day. It was such a delight," she says.

An oil painting of Kohler and her mother hangs above a cozy niche in the main living space.

LaFrombois and Kohler have known each other for two decades and have worked on numerous projects together in the city, including the Kane Commons development in which Kohler built her house. The houses are alike in that they are built to the highest level of sustainability, though the architectural style of Kohlerís house differs from the modern style of the other homes. "Itís very Julilly-centric," LaFrombois says. "There really is no stylistic word for it."

Though itís located in an urban environment, LaFrombois says he can envision the house being in the country as easily as in the city. "Julilly grew up in the formality of the Kohler family," he says. "Kohler homes were anything but domestic. But she fell in love with her familyís cottage and always felt comfortable there."

The starting point was Kohlerís desire to build a straw bale house, which lent itself to the homeís curvy, organic shape. "Iíve always loved curves," Kohler says. "I think they are more natural. The only straight lines in nature are the rays that come from the sun."

LaFrombois says the house feels as if it has emerged from the earth. "My architect did a wonderful job in growing my house out of this hill so the overlook is totally natural over this wonderful, living river. The swooping, living roof has also become a part of nature as it welcomes creatures from above," Kohler says.

She moved in during the winter months, so Kohler didnít immediately realize the impact of having the Milwaukee River as a neighbor. "Even when Iím not watching it, the flow of the river casts a moving light past the windows. I donít think Iíve ever been happier than living on this river."

Like the river, Kohler cherishes her eclectic, East Side locale. "I feel more alive in this neighborhood," she says. "Itís really livable, which helps create a vibrant and interesting neighborhood. I love being near my beloved Brady Street, which is doing nothing but deepening and growing."

Surrounded by only her most prized possessions in her earth-friendly confines, entertaining friends and family, and interacting with nature and the city, Kohler is happy. "There really isnít any other reason to build a house than to somehow enhance and support the rest of your life," she says. "Itís a lot of pain, so it better be worth it. This is the payoff ó the life you live inside that house." 

In an age of spacious master suites, Kohlerís bedroom is intentionally small, due, in part, to her love of train compartments. The bed is made of cherry and was her grandmotherís.


The antique French country table has been with Kohler for years and fit into the new space.


Accessibility is key in the galley style kitchen. Kohler prefers draws to cabinets as the objects inside are easier to reach.