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The modern tree house
New construction home melds seamlessly into its natural, wooded setting

Photos by Tricia Shay

April 2016

When a Milwaukee architect helped a Portage-based couple move to Madison to better suit their careers, he also assisted in their transition from an 1880s Victorian/Italianate to a new millennium modern.

Stephen Bruns specializes in designing residences that not only exhibit ultra-clean and modern lines, but also pay homage to their surroundings. Those elements appealed to Kevin and Erica St. Angel following their

purchase of a third-acre lot in one of Madison’s most coveted neighborhoods, within the beauty of the nearby University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

The resulting residence captures the modern feel of multiple, stacked components built from sustainable materials, allowing the less than 2-year-old structure to meld into the environment as though it has been there for decades.

"We wanted the house to look like it has always been there," says Erica, who explains that thousands of hours of research went into selecting just the right location and arrangement for the 40-something couple’s lifestyle. In fact, she says they wanted a home that could convert to a one-floor living arrangement as they get older — one where they did not have to rely on steps and that could accommodate a live-in caregiver.


Kitchen textures include a charcoal soapstone island and lacquered white cabinets. Mahogany walls line a corridor on the left, extend to a serving bar and walk-in pantry, and then wrap around to the right down a hallway to the front door. 

For now, they enjoy a 3,000-square-foot, bilevel home — expandable to three levels — that features three bedrooms, 2 ˝ baths, an open living/dining room area, a reading nook and an office.

Bruns, who specializes in clean, modern design, says he is aware that modern can be seen as cold and impersonal, so he describes his approach as providing a "warm, modern" environment.

The stairway is a blend of wood materials milled from trees on the property, including white oak treads with black oak landings.

"We wanted it to have a warmth and intimacy," he says. "For example, instead of windows, we discussed transparency — ways to harvest light within the spaces."

Exemplifying that philosophy in this home is a cantilevered section out to the natural setting. A series of large panels bring in light and offer back views of a wide variety of wildlife and trees — a stark contrast to minimal windows facing the front.

"Like all of our projects, we are influenced by the site," Bruns says. "We saw all of these beautiful trees and kind of looked at it as a sort of adventure — a tree house."

The home’s front hallway and oversized cedar front door are framed by a cherrywood ceiling extending outside, mahogany walls and concrete floor. 

Bruns used a variety of materials in his design.

Repurposed tires were formed into shingles for external cladding. Mahogany, cedar and cherrywood begin on the exterior and bleed inside to cover doors, ceilings and walls. Stairs are constructed from white and black oak trees. Concrete ground down to aggregate flows over a heat system so that it’s warm to the touch. A soapstone island adorns the kitchen. Natural stone surrounds and extends inward from the exterior and offers a majestic look to an inside/outside fireplace.

Though the home is new, Erica says she and Kevin are just as mindful of history as they were in the older homes they previously owned.

"When we rehabbed those homes, we discovered a lot," she says. Paying that forward means the St. Angels have left clues about the home for future homeowners. Some of those may be discovered inside walls as well as in notebooks they will someday leave behind. M

The window-dominant master bedroom is an example of how architect Stephen Bruns harvested light for various spaces. The design provides a stunning look at the tree-laden grounds, while the lower panels open for fresh air.


A guest bathroom gets the full design treatment, with elements such as a heated concrete floor and a petite window letting in light while offering a view.

A three-sided fireplace, which also extends outside, loosely divides the living room and corner reading nook.



This story ran in the April 2016 issue of: