St. Paul, United States
David Salmela, Kai Salmela
Meyer Borgman Johnson, Malini Srivastava, Cates Fine Homes
Tom Fisher and Claudia Wielgorecki
The clients’ goals were both practical and idealistic. The initial imperative was for a home that would enable them to age-in-place within the neighborhood they love. It was critical that the house be adaptable to single-level living with adequate circulation for a walker or wheelchair. An additional requirement was that the main living space look toward the alley with direct sightlines to their previous home where their daughter and grandchildren now live. Shortly after construction, the clients’ younger daughter purchased the house next door, creating a dynamic multi-generational community in which grandparents, parents, siblings, and grandchildren can look after one another through the various stages of life, which proved particularly useful during the Covid pandemic.
The second major requirement was that the home be environmentally friendly. The clients wanted to eliminate fossil fuels entirely as an energy source and generate the majority of their own electricity on-site through a photovoltaic array. The clients also wanted to save the existing trees on site which provide habitat to numerous species, absorb and synthesize excess storm water, and create a passive cooling effect in the summer. The ground cover in the yard would also need to be replaced with drought-resistant, pollinator friendly species.
The clients’ larger hope was for the project to serve as a prototype for how we can reimagine single-family urban infill housing in a way that is sensitive to its context, self-conscious about systemic challenges we face, optimistic in its expression, and achievable within a modest budget.
The neighborhood of St. Anthony Park in St. Paul, Minnesota was designed by famed landscape architect Horace Cleveland in the 1880s. It uses an ingenious network of side yard swales and low-lying parks to manage storm water runoff from the rolling terrain. The majority of homes date from 1900-1930, with a mix of single-story bungalows built for railyard workers and larger four-squares built for University professors. It also includes a smattering of mid-century modern gems designed by regionally known architects. The economic diversity of the neighborhood, paired with the strong academic connections make it a vibrant and open-minded community today.
The clients—a professor and his wife—are both academics with backgrounds in architecture. The clients purchased the lot which is located across the alley from their home of 25 years. Their two-story 2,100sf home was becoming too large for their needs. It also lacked a downstairs bedroom which would have required them to move as soon as mobility became a bigger issue.
The new lot was dominated by a number of mature oak and pine trees that surrounded the north, east, and west sides of a tiny 700sf Sear Roebuck house. The century old wood structure was in poor physical condition. Furthermore, its very small rooms and inefficient layout offered few opportunities for meaningful renovation or expansion. However, the 1ft thick poured concrete basement walls were in excellent condition, providing a solid foundation upon which to build a new vision without disruption to the surrounding soil, tree roots, or habitat.
The house promotes the health of its inhabitants, the land, the neighborhood, and the environment. The existing foundation was successfully reused, eliminating costly excavation and allowing the mature trees and habitat to remain intact. New floor joists cantilever 2 feet off of the east and west, increasing the footprint by 100sf and allowing for an accessible living configuration on the main level. An accessible bedroom and bathroom face south toward the micro-clover and native grass lawn while the kitchen, dining, and living functions share a 400sf Great Room facing the alley. A 20ft tall double-height ceiling over the sitting area makes the compact space feel generous. The upper level is defined by an asymmetrical gable roof. The south face slopes at the optimal solar angle for the 5.2kW array which produces all of the home’s power on most days. The north slope is set to a shallower angle to maintain a minimum head height in the upstairs bedroom.
Each window projects outward, increasing the amount of real and perceived space on the interior. Large windows become window seats, reducing the need for freestanding furniture. Smaller window sills become shelves or usable counterspace in the bathrooms and kitchen. Whenever possible, views are directed into the tree canopy rather than into neighbors’ living spaces, resulting in a serene nature-focused experience in the city. The majority of sunlight streams in through two large overhead windows—one facing east in the Great Room, the other facing west in the upper hall—reflecting daylight around the articulated interior volume. A dormer window punches through the south elevation, transforming an otherwise unusable attic space into a dynamic home office—a critical necessity over the past two years.