The Stir-Stick Ranch: Build what you love with whom you love

Laura Webster details the vision and journey that led her and partner Jill Munich to build their dream home in Madison.

Madtown Love

I moved to Madison in 1991 to go to the University of Wisconsin. As an only child, leaving the security of my parents’ home in the suburbs of Milwaukee was a little scary. I knew in my heart, however, that I would probably like it here. I was wrong. Turns out I didn’t like Madison—I loved it.

I knew I wanted to stay in this area for a long time. This was to be my home. What I did not know is that my life would change significantly less than 10 years later when I would realize that I was gay. The trajectory of my life changed in that moment. I believe that everything happens for a reason and the journey I took in my career, life, and love all led me to today, where I have found my true home. As they say, home is where your heart is.

Jill first moved to Madison in 1988, but since then lived half of that time in the rural areas of Dane/Iowa/Green Counties. We met in 2009 while she was living in Mount Horeb. I immediately thought Mount Horeb was not a place I would choose on my own as home, but soon afterward, the stars lined up. We had an opportunity to sell my condo in Sun Prairie just as the market was falling and to embark on a joint project fixing up the 1950s ranch Jill had purchased a year prior. We soon felt that we might stay in Mount Horeb, as we both really liked the “atomic ranch” feel of the home. We quickly fell in love with the town and the wonderful neighbors that became part of our chosen family. However, the commute was long: I work for Kraft/Oscar Mayer as a senior manager of procurement innovation on the far east side, and Jill is the VP of marketing services for National Guardian Life on the Isthmus. We both knew in our hearts that we wanted to be closer to downtown Madison in a location that would facilitate the activities we both enjoy: UW Badgers, arts, culinary exploration, and entertaining our friends and families.

Distracted Driving

Jill and I share the same love of modern design. In my line of work, I spend a lot of time working with design principles for new product development, and Jill is in a creative space for her work all day long. Jill grew up in a family that, by the time she graduated from high school in Chippewa Falls, had built three new homes. It was in her blood. I knew she wanted to build again, and I was very excited to take that leap with her, especially knowing that she had a comfort level with the process.

On a sunny Sunday in October 2010, we drove the long way through town on our way to Hilldale Mall and started to explore some areas of Madison that neither of us had been to for a few years. We had talked about building, but weren’t actively pursuing moving away from Mount Horeb as the projects at our current home were keeping us very busy. As I was driving, I found myself getting caught up in the individual design and expression of the houses around us.

“STOP!” Jill exclaimed.

I slammed on the brakes thinking I was about to run over something or drive off the road. I was so busy gawking at the houses that I didn’t even notice the empty lot right in front of us. It was perfect: southern exposure, elevated lot, and central to nearly everything we did in Madison. Three hours later we put in an offer, and within 24 hours it had been accepted. It was that fast. When you know, you know.

The Design Journey

Now that we had a lot, we started to look for modern house plans online and found two that really caught our eye as a starting point. Key design elements for us were an open floor plan, lots of natural light, and good flow throughout the space. We weren’t in a rush, as we knew we wanted to give ourselves time to finish rehabbing the Mount Horeb house and let the market come back.

We started immersing ourselves in all things “building” to get as many ideas as possible. These included attending events such as open houses, checking out design showrooms, the Modern Home Tour, the Madison Home Expo, and the Madison Area Builders Association Parade of Homes. These places are where we ultimately met many of the subcontractors and individuals responsible for the final product. During the 2011 Parade of Homes, we met Wayne Acker (Acker Builders of Waunakee) at one of his parade homes. We were walking through the house with our original plan in hand, comparing the plan room sizes against their room sizes. Wayne walked up to me and started to ask about the plan. Three hours later we were still there with Wayne and knew he and his family would be the ones to build our dream home.

Over the next two-and-a-half years, we talked through our vision for each of the spaces in the home using the jumping-off point of our online plans with Acker Builders. We used their Draftsman to ultimately create the final version. Jill and I spent hours with each new draft of the plan and walking through in our heads how we planned to use each space. How would we entertain in that space? How would the light look at each time of the day? Would people ever leave the kitchen during a party? (We have confirmed the answer is NO to that question!)

We pored over even the small details such as the height of the cabinet shelves in the kitchen and the height of the outlets near the nightstands for our guests to plug in their phones. We also took inspiration from many of our favorite hotels—Hotel Red, Iron Horse, 21c Museum Hotel. We each put our own unique stamp on the house: Jill’s passion was the Japanese soaking tub concept in the master bath, which we executed through Signature Hardware. My dream was the unique visual feel created by the massive Isis Ceiling Fan from Big Ass Fans.

Thirty-five plan revisions later, we knew we had our dream design. There were features that were never compromised throughout the process to keep us true to our original vision, such as clerestory windows, master shower, the proximity of the laundry to the master closet, outdoor living space, and radiant heat. Surprisingly, other unplanned design elements emerged out of some challenges we faced during the process and resulted in some of our favorite features, such as the front porch cantilever and the wide stairwell with a gated cable rail to the basement.

The Build

We spent quite a bit of time looking for the subcontractors that would breathe life to the project through Acker Builders. We quickly found out that modern design is not easy to execute. Through many field trips, we met amazing local subcontractors that were just as excited about our vision as we were and had a plan to help make it a reality. Special mention goes to Sean Reimer (Building Solutionz), Rick Hoekstra (Kitchen Idea Center), Tim Wollen (Tailored Living), Courtney Brunker (Floor 360), Lisa Clarke (Ferguson Lighting), David Welsh (Artisan Designs, Inc.),
Tim Quigley (Quigley Decks and Fence), and the teams from Dave Jones Plumbing, Flanders Electric Inc (FEI), Fireside Hearth & Home, Brian Schmidt Enterprises, LLC., and Brunsell Lumber & Millwork.

It does not go without mention that the team at Acker Building was amazingly attentive to the details of our project and truly cared about not only the quality of the work, but also our experience with the building process itself. Special thank-you to Wayne, Michelle, Matt, and the rest of the team at Acker. We are thrilled to call many of these individuals not only part of our building team, but now also our friends.

While the building process was very smooth, with only a few weather-related bumps, the trickiest part was the appraisal process (which is required to get the project moving). As we found out, much has changed in this low-interest-financing environment for mortgage lending. The government has taken a lot of control out of their hands, and that leads to more risk aversion from financial institutions. While we had no problem securing the loan, the project is always at risk until you can secure the appropriate appraisal. Tim Greene (Summit Credit Union) made the process painless, and we broke ground at 7 a.m. on May 24, 2013. Exactly 120 days later, we moved into our dream home.

BINGO

A week after we moved in, we realized we needed to come up with a name for our new home. We had always referred to it as “the ranch” during the building process, but knew it needed more character. We wanted it to reflect the “atomic ranch” feel we used in much of the design process and to reflect our plan for entertaining both large and small groups. After about 10 minutes of throwing out names, Jill hit it on the head and “The Stir-Stick Ranch” was born.