While researching their 2012 book, “The Language of Design,” architect Maureen Steele Bellows and retired architect Barry Petit shot hundreds of photos to illustrate the design principles that shape cities, towns and community character.
In studying those photos, they became intrigued by a puzzling pattern in home design, especially in suburban developments.
“So many of the builder homes had multiple gables, complicated roof forms, towers, random peaks and grand entries,” said Petit. “It shattered that line between good design and decoration.”
But today’s new home buyers are reshaping the market. Increasingly, they favor simple, smart use of space and eco-friendly design over grandiose McMansions. Petit and Bellows, who both have decades of experience with local and national architectural firms, decided to tap into the recovering housing market.
“Instead of writing about design,” said Bellows, “we decided to do it.”
To create their own “design niche” in the crowded arena of home plans, Petit and Bellows drew inspiration from David Salmela’s Nordic modern designs and the simple shapes and forms of traditional agrarian architecture, which they had always admired. “It’s the ideal of a farm family that had to build a simple, efficient farmhouse with limited resources,” said Petit.
“It’s a very clean style of architecture with logic and honesty,” added Bellows.
They named their modern farmhouse designs, which have grown to 30 different plans, Vernacular Revival.
The back-to-basics approach combines a shed roof, gabled end and simple shed dormers with low-maintenance fiber-cement siding and fieldstone accents with a regional flavor. “It feels right at home in Minnesota,” said Petit.
To bring their plans to the market, Petit and Bellows collaborated with builder John Boyer, who helped them figure out the smartest and most efficient way to construct their designs, with an emphasis on sustainability, which is a growing demand, said Boyer, owner of Boyer Building in Minnetonka. The architect-designed homes are relatively accessible and affordable for the average person wanting new construction. “We create home plans builders can show their clients,” said Bellows. “The scary process of working with an architect is out of the equation.”
The Vernacular Revival plans range from 1,700-square-foot designs for homes on narrow infill lots, up to 5,000-square-foot versions for large families. Construction costs start at $320,000, which doesn’t include land. “The simple forms are easy to expand and contract because we aren’t locked into complicated shapes,” said Petit.
Boyer has built three Vernacular Revival homes on lots in an Excelsior housing subdivision, including a 3,500-square-foot, two-story house priced at $698,400, which is open for tours on the Parade of Homes. A farmhouse-style porch with a dark-stained beadboard ceiling opens to the foyer and wide staircase leading upstairs. The ceilings are all 9 feet high because Petit and Bellows aren’t fans of vaulted entries. “It’s wasted space, unless you have a painting by Michelangelo on the ceiling,” said Petit.
No redundant spaces
The family room, dining room and kitchen flow together into one big great room with tall corner windows that open up to the wetlands. There’s room for large holiday gatherings in the dining area, as well as casual meals around the generous-sized center island. “We eliminated redundant spaces like the formal dining and formal living rooms and saved square footage that we used for the den,” said Petit.
Clean, white-enameled woodwork is juxtaposed with natural maple floors throughout the main floor. Corner windows, which make rooms feel larger and let in more light, are one of the hallmarks of their design. “Builders don’t often use them [corner windows] because they cost more than one big window — but we think the trade-off is worth it,” said Petit.
Upstairs is a laundry room, three bedrooms and a master suite decked out with a windowed dressing room. The design’s smaller, efficient scale and simple, durable exterior use fewer resources and materials, following sustainability goals. “Plus the nostalgic design is classic and won’t become outdated,” said Bellows.
That’s a characteristic that attracted Mark and Kim Kelsey to the Vernacular Revival designs. They recently built a Petit-Bellows-designed home on a John Boyer lot next to the Parade model. It’s painted white with “red barn” accents, and they even have an outbuilding.
“My family is from farm country, and we wanted a simple, well-constructed home with a rural feel,” said Mark. “When we saw the drawings, it was a done deal.”