In September 2022, our team journeyed to rural Wisconsin to uncover a hidden gem of modern architecture. The Svart Hus, meaning "dark house" in Swedish, stands at just over 2,600 square feet. It boasts a stunning exterior of black Suyaki™ and unburned sugi with silver weathering stain. Designed and built by local couple Kate Smith and her husband Scott. They welcomed us into their home to share the story of how Svart Hus came to be. This home is not just a physical structure, but a manifestation of their dreams and the embodiment of their unique vision. Join us as we take a closer look at this architectural masterpiece and discover the story behind it.
Door County, WI
Svart Hus was constructed in Door County, a small peninsula extending into Lake Michigan. Popular in the summertime when the weather is pleasant, it's a bit quieter during the winter months. In the winter, snow piles high, and sub-freezing temperatures are a fact of daily life. Scott grew up in Wisconsin, not too far from where their house stands today. Door County, as Scott puts it, is a magical place. It was important to him to return to a place which holds so many memories.
“It can be quiet if you want, it can be busy if you want. It’s a neat place to grow up, to raise kids, such a nice community. Everything’s so small up here, it’s nice. It’s always been a special place. When I wasn’t living in Wisconsin, we’d come back to visit my grandfather and I loved those summers. I’ve always loved living here.”
A Custom Home
When Kate and Scott set out to build their dream home, they didn't just settle for a cookie-cutter design. Instead, they crafted a truly one-of-a-kind masterpiece. With Kate, owner of k.smith | x design firm, leading the charge as the visionary and primary designer, and Scott working tirelessly alongside their contractor to bring their vision to life, every inch of their home is a testament to the love and dedication poured into it.
While many families boast of a 'custom' home, for Kate and Scott, the phrase takes on a whole new level of meaning. Scott told us about installing one wall of Suyaki™ after a rain storm. As he hand-hammered each nail, the wet soot from the boards would splatter, leaving behind small eroded areas the size of a hammerhead. Instead of viewing this as a flaw, the Smiths embrace it as a character-adding feature that reminds them of the hard work and love they put into building their home. It's a tangible reminder that this is truly their own, one-of-a-kind creation.
Building my own house was something that I dreamed as a kid of doing. I walk around the house and I'm very proud of the stuff I’ve done here. - Scott
Can you tell me a little about your design process?
Kate: My style is heritage modern feel…when I have control. My philosophy is, let’s invest in our core pieces, let’s make smart choices that are going to age well.
I want to dig into the “why” on why we like certain pieces. Do we like this because HGTV told us to, or do we like this because it has some kind of rooted meaning to us? Why is it here, and how does it relate to you? That’s so important because when you go to a showroom, they go “let’s pick this, it’s neutral and it’ll go with everything!" But that’s so boring, and my goal is to make things feel like it’s your home, but elevated.
I believe it’s really important to take the time and ask those questions so that when you’re in the process, you’re not missing any marks. Because with some things in building a house, there are no go-backs. When I sit down with a client, I ask, "what’s your diet, how do you like to clean, how do you fold your clothes?" Those questions aren’t often asked, and I get the opportunity to ask those questions. I’m making sure the house is really going to work for them and their lifestyle.
What was the thought process behind building a home with two houses?
Kate: We wanted this to be kind of a retreat, even though we’re here full time. And really, we built two houses, and just put a connector on it. The whole concept was to have two separate spaces. We’d have the joint dining-kitchen-living room, as well as the office, laundry, utility on one side. Then the other side is our sleeping space, and we want the sleeping space to be just that; we’re here for the intent of resting. So really we just wanted to have a sense of quiet and to take advantage of all the views on every part of the house.
Svart Hus gives a nod to the dogtrot style of house design. Dogtrot is a style that was used in the South pre-AC, wherein they built house as a square with a breezeway in the middle. The breezeway forced a breeze through the house to create a cooling effect.
You have this amazing vantage point in different sections so that when you're in one part of the house, you’re able to see all the way through to the other part of the house and then all the way to the trees. What can you tell me about the lines of sight in the house?
Kate: I’m not going to call it a complete accident, but it just kind of worked out that way. In the beginning, it was, “how do we position the buildings to work together?” So we workshopped quite a bit, and then at some point the light bulb went off and we realized we were really missing an opportunity. We realized, when you walk up to the house, wouldn’t it be great if you could just see right through it? So that’s what we did.
That’s the beauty of not only having not just a toe in the pool but being in the pool to work on the project; we could manipulate the drawings ourselves. Through this collaborative process, we then shifted the house inch by inch to make these windows align and have the line of sight from the front of the house all the way to the back bedroom. And that’s when we got into the making sure those line, those windows line up to get those really good breezes, so it was a happy accident. It didn’t start as intentional but then it really became a thing of being able to see the buildings and then evolved into more with the two different colors and really establish these as two different spaces.
Cladding is a huge line item. Coupled with the fact that in most cases, most people are purchasing a product that perhaps they haven’t worked with or even seen in large quantities, one might have reservations about placing an order. What moved the needle for you?
It’s good to be different, it’s good to take the risks, and it’s good to try something new. - Kate
Kate: When you’re working with any natural product, it is a risk, and that’s the beauty of it. You have to make these big choices, and especially when you’re talking about the exterior of your house, it is a big commitment. But I also think that in a world where everyone’s doing a white board and batten house with a black roof, it’s good to be different, it’s good to take the risks, and it’s good to try something new.
When you’re spending this kind of money, you have some responsibility there, and you do your research. You’d never go out and spend $50,000 on a car just because it’s pretty. No, you would take your time, you would test drive it, you would do some research, you would talk to somebody about it, and I think it’s the same thing with a product for your house. You’re going to need to take the time to understand what you’re purchasing.
Tell me about the aspect of contrast on your house. You’ve got these two contrasted colors with the black and silver, and then you’ve used silver galvanized nails that are contrasted by the black of the Suyaki™. How did you make those decisions?
Kate: For us, it was, “How do we execute this in a tasteful way?” I didn’t want to do just a regular cedar and paint it black, I wanted something that was more special than that.
Scott's the one who first found yakisugi, that was something that he decided on. I definitely was nervous because it was a little bit more organic than I had planned on going. In the end I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s absolutely stunning and I’m so pleased with how it looks.
Scott: Once we got working with the Suyaki™ and stepped back after we had several boards up, we saw the neat contrast between the galvanized nails and the black siding. We thought, "let’s just roll with that for a while." We got a whole wall done and we were just like "we’re leaving it like that." I thought it just stuck out so neat, I just thought it looked really cool.
Let's talk about the fact that you've got a natural, organic, imperfect product on the exterior of your home. What about that appealed to you, over something that might have a more pristine look?
Kate: Because it’s not a factory finish, it is going to evolve over time. There are so many factors that go into that, including the amount of exposure to the sun each side of the house gets, the weathering depending on the climate, things like that. We get snow here, up to five-foot snow drifts, and after one winter, you can already see how that's weathering on the gray sugi. But that just part of it, that's what we wanted.
But it's important to research the product ahead of time, to understand what it is that you're purchasing. For instance, I’ve had some clients who cling to something in particular, like zellige tile. But you have to consider how you live, and if at the end of the day you're someone who doesn't want to spend hours per week cleaning your zellige tile to keep it looking perfect, it doesn’t make sense for your lifestyle. In that case, it's best to pick something else. So I think it’s really important to take ownership and educate yourself on what you're investing in. This shou sugi ban is a product that has a lifespan, and it's going to age just like we as people age.
Scott: We had our nail gun set so it would leave the head of the nail sticking out a little bit and we would hand nail them in the rest of the way so that the head of the nail would be flush with the material and not sunken in. We noticed that some of the boards, if they were wet from rain, the soot itself would absorb the moisture then you smack it with your hammer and it would splatter. Now after it being on the house for a year, you can see a hammerhead size area where the soot it gone and it adds a neat character to the look of the siding.
Kate: And that's to us a special thing, it's a memory that we built this house, it's ours and it's part of our history.
How do you feel about your home being imperfect, aging over time and taking on a new look?
Kate: I think that’s part of the beauty of it, this home was designed to be very visually quiet so there’s art throughout and the art is more poppy, there’s color brought in but everything is very intentional, everything is very quiet. We have very busy lives and for me especially, I’m on job sites all day and doing all of these bizarre design things - when I come back home, I want a space that’s very very quiet.
Scott: I’m looking forward to 10 years from now seeing what it’s going to look like. Should be pretty neat.
It’s an experience I’ll never forget, it’s a dream come true to build my own home and have it turn out so cool.
It’s not perfect, but it’s supposed to be like that. - Kate