A buildable lot on one of Minneapolis' Chain of Lakes is the holy grail of real estate.
But Ashii and Ippo Vrohidis managed to find just that — and build their dream home, despite a series of obstacles.
Ippo, who is Greek and likes to windsurf, wanted to live on or near a lake.
"My husband is a water person," said Ashii. She's Croatian and an urban gourmet who wanted close proximity to great restaurants. "I wanted the city. I wanted food."
To get both, they were thinking about buying or building two places, one Up North and one in town. Then they discovered a property on W. Calhoun Parkway several years ago, after getting to know the owner. They knew it was a rare opportunity to get everything they wanted in one place.
"We jumped," said Ashii. The corner lot was narrow, with a steep slope and a small rental cottage surrounded by overgrown vegetation. "Nobody knew it was an actual lot."
Ashii, a self-employed designer, had a clear vision about what kind of house she wanted: clean-lined and modern, with organic and industrial elements.
"I wanted the house cut into the earth rather than sitting on top," she said. And she wanted to make the most of the lake setting. "It's beautiful every second of every day. I wanted to do the environment justice."
But accomplishing all that on "the most complicated lot in Minneapolis" was a challenge. To pull it off, the couple turned to custom builder John Kraemer & Sons, Edina.
"She had this house designed in her head," said Kraemer. "But the lot was very difficult. We needed nine variances. The neighbors were for it, which always helps."
Adding to the complexity, the couple had moved overseas for Ippo's job as a 3M executive by the time they were ready to start building. "We were living on an island off the coast of Dubai," said Ashii. "But we knew we would come back."
Ashii, a world traveler, had been collecting objects and ideas that she wanted to incorporate into their new home. "I was inspired by travels I was privileged enough to have," she said.
Sharing her input long-distance required countless texts, e-mails and Skype sessions, said Kraemer. "She had a lot of unique ideas we'd never seen before, like the waterproof plaster from Morocco" and the decorative metal partial wall, inspired by seaweed, that she wanted for the bathroom.
The house is not large, about 2,500 square feet, but every space was designed to make the most of Lake Calhoun. Walls of glass — windows and sliding doors from Marvin Windows and Doors' Integrity Wood-Ultrex line — frame expansive views of the lake. A stone accent wall in the living room holds a cutout for stacked firewood — but no fireplace. "We chose not to have one," said Ashii. "We cut out the corner so you could see the lake. That's more important than a fireplace."
Upstairs, the master suite also was designed to make the most of the lake view, with a big window in the closet as well as in the bedroom, and barn doors that open to reveal the full expanse. Ashii wanted it to feel like being in a treehouse.
"When you're lying in bed, you can see out. I like to see the nature that surrounds me." Fall is her favorite season in Minnesota. "I really like the changing of the colors."
There's even a rooftop patio, accessible via a spiral staircase, for 360-degree views.
Inside, the floor plan is open, and spaces were finished simply, with no trims or baseboard. "Trim lines can catch your eye," Ashii said, and she wanted the focus to be on architectural elements and artwork.
Back to Minnesota
The couple returned to the Twin Cities a few months before the house was completed, and Ashii brought with her all the finishing touches she had collected overseas, including handmade light fixtures from Italy, stone and marble from the Middle East, and a sink crafted by a Thai monk.
"One of the most difficult parts was getting stuff through customs," she said. But she was determined to fill their home with things that had meaning to her. "I find beauty in the craftsman," she said.
They settled into a small rental apartment while they waited for their house to be finished, and Ashii became a daily collaborator.
"When they moved back, Ashii was here all day, every day, talking to the subcontractors," Kraemer said. "It was cool to work so closely with the client."
She also took a hands-on approach to furnishing and decorating the house, designing many of the pieces and artwork herself, such as their distinctive coffee table, made of weathered timbers and metal.
Ashii's unusual DIY artwork includes a skeleton of a grouper fish that she disassembled — all 400-plus bones — then reassembled on a plaster base, and a butterfly made of feathers from birds she raised herself.
The house includes a studio in the basement and a workshop in the garage where she can create.
Now that her biggest creation, the house, is complete, Ashii is focused on her next passion project — developing and designing a French restaurant. "We love Minneapolis," she said. "We are excited to be here. We're going to stay here."
Coming home to a house that brings the outside in stimulates her creativity, she said. "It gives me the inspiration I need."