Living in the Forest

by | Jul 9, 2021 | Entire Home, Room-By-Room

In 2009, when land prices were falling, Indianapolis residents Dale and Michele Wedel bought a parcel of ground in Brown County, Indiana, approximately 70 miles from their Indy home. It seemed like a good investment, and the pair had an inkling that it could make for a nice vacation place, or even a retirement home down the road.

“A couple of years later,” says Dale, “Michele and I began a more earnest discussion about what we wanted to do with the site. We tentatively thought that a log home might be appropriate for the property, which is completely forested.” The couple decided to further their research by attending an Indianapolis log and timber frame home show, where vendors displayed their building systems and informative seminars were presented. “Rather quickly,” reports Michele, “we decided that a timber frame made more sense for our personal tastes. We especially liked the aspects of low maintenance and the general energy efficiency qualities of timber frame construction versus a conventional stick-built house.”

The Wedels didn’t make any immediate decisions, but the following year they went back to the show, intending to interview some of the timber frame producers. “We talked at length with three different companies, and then selected David Marquart of Custom Woodcraft Builders, along with David Watters of the Beamery. They are essentially a team, so we met them simultaneously. Dave Marquart is a general contractor and Dave Watters is an architect and passive heating/cooling designer. Their combined expertise made for a highly educational building adventure. There wasn’t a single moment during the entire process of design and construction our home that we questioned our decision to go with ‘the Daves.’”

Located at the end of a rural two-mile stretch of twisty, turning, uphill, downhill road, the Wedels’ 17- acre parcel of land is forested with a variety of hardwoods, predominantly oak species, with some hickory and walnut. “The road to our property starts out paved,” says Dale, “and then transitions to a fairly good gravel road, then a not so good gravel road, eventually becoming just two tracks with some rock on them. It’s the kind of road that frequently makes us ponder how we are going to be able to navigate it in the winter months.” He says there were times during the building process when 4WD vehicles were a must. The overall lay of the Wedels’ acreage is steep, with an elevation gain of 150 from the lowest to highest point. Its saving grace is a ridge running through the property, providing the only flat area amenable to siting a house.

“Early on in our ownership of the property,” recalls Michele, “we met with a state forester in the area and walked the property with him. He pointed out the various species of trees to us, along with some potentially invasive ones, generally educating us about our new land.” The forester explained to the Wedels that the 17 acres had not been timbered for many decades and removing a few trees would be beneficial to the forest. “So,” Dale continues, “one of the first orders of business was for us to do a light timbering on the property. We contracted with a forester who works with logging companies to use sustainable logging practices. He identified the trees that would be harvested (about five per acre), conducted the auction of the wood, and supervised the logging process. The timber harvest barely changed the ‘flavor’ of the land and as far as we can tell, so far, none of the remaining trees were adversely impacted by the operation.”

The precise location for the home on the property was fairly obvious to Michele, Dale, and their building team. The property’s ridge widened enough in one area to accommodate a house, garage, and turn-around driveway without having to reshape the land.

The first aspect of the house design that was decided on was a wall of windows on the south side of the home, to take advantage of passive solar heat during the winter months. “Because the house is on a down-sloping ridge,” explains Dale, “a walkout basement became another obvious choice to make.” He points out that a not-so-obvious facet of passive heating and cooling is to reduce the number of exterior angles and bump-outs. “Ideally,” Dale says, “a simple rectangle, or even a circle, would be the perfect shape of a passive energy home. We were able to work closely with Dave Watters to stick with this ideal, but included one flourish in our design, a half-tower that contains the staircases between the four levels of the house.”

This staircase “flourish” is one of the most dramatic aspects of the Wedel home. Ascending from the basement level to the master bedroom area, the stairway’s exceptionally crafted woodworking beckons one to use it. Between each floor, the first eight or nine steps have a riser that ties into the house. When the steps turn, within the tower area, they are notched into and supported by the poplar trunk. “Those steps float,” describes Dale. “They are attached to the tree, but not to the frame of the house.” The tree is a poplar from southern Indiana that is over three feet in diameter at the basement level, tapering to a little over 20 inches at its top. It was lowered into place by a crane during the timber-raising process, before the walls or roof were installed.

“Once these major design elements were established,” says Michele, “the balance of the floorplan and positioning of rooms was fairly straightforward.” The master bedroom suite and office area are situated on the third floor. At the very top of the staircase is a simple loft space, a getaway spot that looks out over the interior of the great room, as well as through the windows, some 30 feet from the ground, into the trees.

Bedrooms throughout the home are generally situated on the north side of the dwelling, reducing heat loss from large viewing windows and providing a darker sleeping environment.

Dave Marquart selected the majority of the construction subcontractors. In a few instances, Michele and Dale requested that he use some subs they had met at the home shows they attended. Dave Watters of The Beamery not only designed the architecture and passive energy features of the home, but also directed the fabrication of the timber frame and oversaw most of the interior trim work.

Michele and Dale consider themselves fairly private people. They say having this somewhat isolated, hard-to-get-to place in the woods suits them well. “Most of our time is spent in the great room of the house,” says Dale, “and, when I am working from here, I’m generally in the office area that overlooks the great room and the serene view.” Since recently occupying the house, in the summer of 2014, the Wedels have come up with design plans for the outdoor living areas, but have not yet had a chance to implement them. They are taking their time with the landscaping and intend to keep it low maintenance and natural.

“During the time that we have been at our new home,” says Michele, “we have done some entertaining for family and close friends. The house works great for weekend getaways and cookouts. We hosted a big gathering for all of our neighbors along our bumpy two-mile stretch of road; over 20 folks attended! It was great to meet so many of our neighbors and celebrate our commonality.”

Indiana has a Classified Forest program. In exchange for a significant property tax break, landowners with 10 or more acres must agree to manage the land using accepted forest management techniques for sustainability and wildlife diversity. The management includes limits to the amount of logging that can be done, with a restriction on farm animals and agricultural use. Property owners are required to file yearly land usage reports and are subject to five-year inspections.

“Our entire property has been in this forest classification for decades,” says Dale Wedel. “Michele and I intend to continue that legacy of conservation. There are certainly ways to build a home within these constraints, with a respect for the native forest and understory. Many of the properties and homesteads in the county are part of this program, which is consistent with our personal goals. We are interested in the ‘living in a forest’ aspect of the property, much more so than ‘how can we financially capitalize (quickly) on this property?’”

In the long run, Michele and Dale hope to realize a return on their investment, just as any homeowner does. But, most importantly, they plan to retire and live there for a long, long time; the property suits them just the way it is, the way it has been for so many years.