Several years ago, on a design editors’ winter trip to tour a window factory in Warroad, Minn., my colleagues and I hijacked our van driver and demanded he drive us to the Canadian border. We weren’t trying to escape the country at the time, but we were on a special mission: We had to go see the U.S. Land Port of Entry building designed by Snow Kreilich Architects. The quiet, strong, beautiful building had bewitched us in photographs, and it felt very much like a pilgrimage to go see it in person. Traveling due north on the desolate road to the border made it seem like we were headed to the ends of the earth. If we were indeed at the top of the world, this building was a worthy last stop on our way to oblivion.
This year, the Minneapolis-based firm has won the national recognition it deserves—the 2018 AIA Firm of the Year award. No matter what the building type or scale design principals Julie Snow, FAIA, Matthew Kreilich, FAIA, and their firm take on, they do so with impeccable care and sensibility. As a result, their work is powerful, resonant, solid, and remarkably human. Free of flourish, it is nonetheless gorgeously wrought and, we can rest assured, aesthetically durable—like that perfect strand of natural pearls.
Snow Kreilich hasn’t specialized in residential architecture, but somehow it’s a natural fit for their talents and the work keeps coming in—even more so these days and since Julie’s own serenely iconic home, Weekend House on Lake Superior, captured everyone’s imagination. Whether the residential project is on a densely urban lot or an expansively scenic site, the attention paid is at the same high level. The recently completed Wayzata Residence is an example of the latter category of work—a beautifully scenic location with incomparable proximity to Lake Minnetonka, one of the most popular lakes in the “Land of 10,0000 Lakes.”
Lake Minnetonka benefits and suffers from its closeness to Minneapolis, just 15 miles away. Many of the humble weekend cottages have fallen victim to teardown and replacement by sprawling, overwrought houses. “The lake has an interesting history,” says Matt, who led the design on the Wayzata house. “There was originally a trolley line that went out to an amusement park out there. Minnesotans would take the trolley out and spend the day. Then they started building small summer cottages along the lake. Nowadays, it’s essentially a suburb of the Twin Cities, and people are building 20,000-square-foot McMansions.”
The current owners already had a house on the 1-acre property, one that had some critical flaws—chief among them were a “crumbling foundation” and recurring flooding in the basement, says Matt. At first, the clients were unsure of whether they wanted to renovate the 100-year-old house or rebuild—it had already had a number of middling renovations in the 1980s. Although they sought to improve upon what they had, they were concerned they might lose what they loved about the house if it were completely replaced. Ultimately, says Matt, “there were lots of things with the bones and infrastructure that were not conducive to adding on.” The structural engineer concurred. The team and clients decided to re-envision the house and build anew.
The biggest sacrifice in tearing down the existing house was its grandfathered location next to the water. Had they held onto the old foundation, the design team could have gotten the house closer to the lake. “Our clients were worried they would not have as good a view in the new house,” Matt says. “But we reassured them we would be able to get them great views—even better views than they had.”
The secret to the team’s superpower? Windows—floor-to-ceiling windows—and lots of them. “Older houses were designed from the outside in,” Matt explains. “It’s always amazing to talk with clients coming from older homes—just the ability to bring glass to the floor and to the ceiling is transformative. Those two feet of wall create a very different connectivity to the site. The old house was all punched openings. The new windows really maximize those views. Now light can bounce across surfaces within the house.”
These clients were not novices about the potential of modern design (they own another house in California by Marmol Radziner), but they came to Snow Kreilich with no stylistic agenda—just a programmatic one. Their goal in optimizing this house was to spend half the year in each location. Consequently, the lake house needed the functionality of a fulltime residence, but with the special delights and lightness of being that vacation homes can elicit. The couple wanted the house to feel comfortable for just the two of them, but also absorb the hustle and bustle of returning adult children.
The firm’s response was a self-sufficient and satisfying one-story house, with private guest quarters on a second floor. (Gone was the troublesome, leaky basement, as the new house is built on a slab.) The main floor is largely open, with a central space for the kitchen, living, and dining areas that connects full-on to the views. “The kitchen is now broad face to the lake,” says Matt.
There’s also a smaller alcove carved out of the whole that serves as a protected sitting and TV-watching area for the couple. A small office adjacent to the master provides additional runaway space. Most important, the new master bedroom retains what the husband loved best about the old house: a direct connection to the lake for sunrise sails or a bracing dip in the water.
Another favorite feature of the old house was a broad deck that ran parallel to the water, seeming almost to float above it like an anchored boat. The firm recreated the idea, but with their own finesse in how built elements link to the landscape—crisply, cleanly, perfectly. The main room opens to the biggest expanse of deck, but there’s also a smaller deck that serves just the master.
Guests are treated well on the second floor, too, with three bedrooms and bathrooms, their own hang-out room, an ample deck overlooking the water, and a smaller, private deck that faces the front of the house.
The interiors are spare but carefully considered, designed to serve as a backdrop for the clients’ collections and those stunning views. “The clients had eclectic colorful furniture and art—we didn’t want to compete with that, we wanted those items to stand on their own. We also didn’t want the house to feel like a cabiny, dark lake home,” Matt recalls. “The walls are bright, and the wood floors have an almost white-washed tone to them.”
Another challenge when you take away basements and attics is to replace storage capacity. Lakeside life requires lots of gear, as do large-scale entertaining and accommodating guests for extended periods. The firm’s solution was to build thick walls wherever they could. “The whole plan evolved from large storage walls,” says Matt. “They became the organizing elements. If you open up some of these cabinets, they’re incredibly detailed. We measured and tracked down everything they wanted to store and created a place for it.” Mechanicals are in the three-car garage, which also contains a crawl space and storage for larger items.
The architects reoriented the garage, originally located at the front of the house, to the side of the property. There’s still a motor court, formed by the back of the garage and the front elevation, where cars may pull in as needed. Family drives around the side of the house, into the garage, and then enters through a mudroom/pantry corridor that flows directly into the kitchen. “It was a really important shift to get the vehicles away from the front of the house,” says Matt.
Now the formal entry is a lovely, choreographed affair that builds to the big reveal. Slender but tall windows underline the vertical aspects of the elevation while controlling views through the house. “The entry itself is elevated on a slight deck and it’s sheltered by the mass of the second floor,” he continues. “The deck and the stairs—the way they meet the ground—emphasize the lightness and the delicate touch to the landscape. As you climb the steps, you can see through to hints of the lake. Our challenge with this house was to balance its transparency with its openness to the views—its opacity and its privacy.”
The architects considered a number of cladding options, including masonry, which is common along the lake, but they eventually settled on wood. Not just any wood, however. “We thought it would be interesting to do a modern interpretation of the masonry houses. As the design evolved, though, there was a desire to have it lighter. Then we moved to this wood. It’s burnt, brushed, and stained. As you get closer, you can see that the grain stands proud. It’s not necessarily a weathered look, but there’s an incredible softness to it,” Matt says. “There’s a quality to lakes—with the light sparkling off the water. The wood is like that. It has a similar reflectivity.”
Such a lovely site is rare even for an AIA Firm of the Year winner, and it proves there’s always something new to learn with each project, each location, and each client. “We’ve done a number of houses on lakes, but this one is unusual,” notes the architect. “We haven’t been right there at the water level before. As you sit on the deck, your eyes are right at the horizon. The effect is, you’re much more engaged with the lake and the landscape.
“You know, when most Minnesotans want to escape the city, they usually go north. We have 10,000 lakes and a lot of choices. But this lake is so close—just a 20-minute drive from downtown—and as you drive out to it, it feels like you’re many miles away.”
ARCHITECT: Matthew Kreilich, FAIA, and Julie Snow, FAIA, principals-in-charge; Kart-Keat Ching, AIA, project architect and project manager; Christina Stark, AIA, designer; Kevin Ellingson, AIA, designer; Snow Kreilich Architects, Minneapolis
BUILDER: Welch Forsman Associates, Minneapolis
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Martha Dayton Design, Minneapolis
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Travis Van Liere Studio, Minneapolis
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Ericksen Roed & Associates, St. Paul, Minn.
PROJECT SIZE: 5,500 square feet
SITE SIZE: 1.15 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Paul Crosby Photography (exteriors); Aksel Coruh (interiors)
ROOF WINDOWS: Velux, Solatube
CLADDING: reSAWN Timber Co., Nigiri: Accoya Shou Sugi Ban
GARAGE DOORS: Midland Garage Door Mfg. Co., flush panel
DRYWALL: National Gypsum Gold Bond
ENGINEERED LUMBER: Trus Joist, TimberStrand LSL
THERMAL/MOISTURE BARRIER: Tyvek
COOKING APPLIANCES: Wolf
REFRIGERATOR/WINE FRIDGE: Sub-Zero
KITCHEN FAUCETS: Dornbracht
TILE: Revival Tile, Mercury Mosaics, Heath Ceramics
LIGHTING: Juno Lighting