Builder Peter Crain and his wife spent several years looking for the right lot on which to build their third and perhaps last home. They found it in an older community of traditional lake cottages that was outside city limits when Minneapolis was in its infancy. Extra-wide and within walking distance of Lake Harriet, the plot was free of mature trees that might have had to be cut down during construction, and the existing house wasn’t worth saving—two of Peter’s criteria.
While these empty nesters were moving into the city from the suburbs, Peter is no stranger to building on challenging urban lots. “We do a lot of them,” he says. And he knew just the firm to help him design the house: PKA Architects, which shares his appreciation for exacting detail. Coming from a traditional home, the couple wanted something modern but not starkly so, and they found their muse while visiting their son in Copenhagen. “We loved the architecture there—modern overall but with a traditional shape or massing,” Peter says. “We had worked with PK before and knew this was in their wheelhouse.”
The neighbor to the north sat a few feet from the property line, prompting a design with built-in screening. The team tinkered with a gabled form that runs from front to back on the north side of the lot and meets a perpendicular flat green roof on the south. Those gestures stuck. Together they form an L-shaped footprint: the gabled volume contains a kitchen in the front, a mudroom and stairway in the middle, and a garage entered from a rear alley. The flat-roofed volume houses a front porch, foyer, dining room, and living room facing west to the street, and a screened outdoor dining and seating area oriented to the rear grassy courtyard.
“We kept the massing fairly low, not hitting the maximum 35-foot height,” Peter says. “Also, we entertain a lot and wanted the inside and outside to open up and feel like one big space, even when the house is closed in winter. The screened back porch, front porch, and living room are all in the same space.”
For designer Gabriel Keller, Assoc. AIA, the front porch serves several important functions. “Traditional front porches create a sense of community,” he says. “Most of us like living in the city because we like interacting with neighbors. We try to capture that in modern work, with a traditional front porch done in a modern way, but also a back courtyard. And in this climate, it’s nice to have protection from snow and rain by the front door.”
Peter sourced linear-cut limestone from Wisconsin for the exterior cladding—a combination of cut, split, and exposed faces. On the flat-roofed south volume, the stone wall moves seamlessly from inside to out, tying together the front porch, interior fireplace wall, and rear porch, while a continuous clerestory visualizes the material separation between the stone wall and metal roof, and provides even daylighting.
“Our modern architecture in Minnesota is different than in warmer climates,” Gabriel says. “We need to have this feeling of material warmth to make us feel comfortable in our spaces through the long, cold winters. All the materials have a warmth that makes you want to touch and experience them.”
Empty nesters or not, many clients feel compelled to adopt a resale-driven design that puts four bedrooms on the second floor. However, Peter and his wife chose to invest in the quality of spaces rather than rooms they would rarely use. Upstairs, a modest-sized primary suite opens out to a stone patio on the sedum-covered roof. Its sitting area is defined by a raised, 16-by-8-foot commercial skylight that scoops light into the living room below.
A long, linear shed dormer in the standing-seam gable roof opens the adjacent stair hall, gym, and work-at-home office to the southern light and views of the green roof and courtyard below. “A lot of times green roofs can’t be seen by the people in the house, but here they can appreciate it all the time,” Gabriel says. In the office, a Murphy bed hidden in a wall of cabinetry accommodates overnight guests, in addition to a guest suite in the basement.
Downstairs, a distinct sense of place permeates each living space within the open floor plan. An airy steel scrim separates the living room and dining room, filtering light from the large living room skylight in eye-catching ways. A similar screen encloses the skylit stairwell, drawing sunlight and the eye up and down. “In Minneapolis, basements are big things, and the open stairwell allows public flow from the main floor to the downstairs family room and pool table,” Gabriel says.
As the homey heart of the house, the kitchen contains a library nook with soft seating—an alternative to perching at the island. A scullery area behind the main kitchen is equipped with a second sink and dishwasher, ovens, and small appliances, allowing for quieter living spaces. Durable white oak floors tie the interiors together, as does the walnut cabinetry and blackened steel on the wet bar and buffet.
A trio of textures—steel, stone, and glass—add luster and delight. Counterpointing the stone wall that pierces the indoor and outdoor zones, blackened steel also surrounds the living room fireplace while obscuring the television. Sliding glass walls open the living room to the front porch and rear porch, where a fireplace, heated stone floor, and gas heaters in the ceiling extend the outdoor season. In the dining room, a Bocci chandelier scales down the ceiling height with its colorful orbs.
Accommodating those long-span sliders required steel framing—essentially a post and beam steel structure wrapped in wood. “To avoid thermal bridging, we used a ZIP System R series wall, so an inch and a half of polystyrene foam is adhered to the back of the sheathing and there is spray foam between the studs,” Peter says.
In fact, the entire house rests on helical piers—a decision made mid-excavation—because the neighbor is so close to the property line. “We hit some bad soil that didn’t show up on soil samples,” Peter says. “We could have fixed the issues by excavating another 4 or 5 feet down but we were worried about the neighbor’s house falling into our hole.”
Ever mindful of keeping waterborne pollutants from reaching Lake Harriet a few houses away, the construction team directed stormwater runoff into two 500-gallon tanks under the front lawn. Their open bottoms sit on gravel that allows the water piped from lawn grates and a built-in gutter system on the back façade to slowly replenish the water table.
The project was not without its troubles, even tragedy. “It’s hard to tell the story of the house without talking about our project architect, Ted Martin,” who died in a bike accident during the project, Gabriel says. “This house was one that we both cared about so much, and it’s hard that he’s not here to have this conversation. It was a collaboration between the three of us.”
And a successful one, according to the final judge—the owners. “Gabriel and Ted did a wonderful job of listening to how we wanted to live, not having done a modern home before and knowing this was our empty nester home,” Peter says. “We sit out on the screened porch all the time, just pop open those big sliders and move freely between inside and out. This is my third home for our family, and there isn’t anything I would change.”
Lake Harriet Residence
Architect: Gabriel Keller, Assoc. AIA, principal in charge; Ted Martin, project architect, PKA Architecture, Minneapolis
Builder: Peter Crain, Trestle Homes, Minneapolis
Interior designer: Christine Frisk, InUnison Design, Minneapolis
Landscape architect: Travis Van Liere, TVL Studio, Landscape Renovations; and Bachman’s Landscaping, Minneapolis
Project size: 3,980 square feet
Site size: 0.22 acre
Construction cost: Withheld
Cladding: Reynobond Steel Panels
Engineered lumber: Timberstrand/AdvanTech
Faucets: The Galley Ideal Workstation, Dornbracht
Hardware: Chicago Brass
Home control systems: Josh Ai
HVAC system: Carrier
Kitchen Appliances: Miele
Lighting control systems: Crestron
Piping and equipment: Viega ProPress
Radiant heating: Warmboard
Roofing: Structural Design Concepts
Skylights: VELUX Commercial
Sprinkler systems: Green Acres Sprinkler Co.
Underlayment, sheathing: ZIP System R-Sheathing
Windows and wall systems: Marvin Modern
Window shading systems: Lutron
Wine refrigerator: Miele