A family in Minnetonka faced a typical homeowner dilemma. Should they stay and revamp the aging, modest-sized home they'd outgrown? Or hunt for a newer house that already had all the features they wanted?

They toured a lot of new open houses but were disappointed by the wasted space, lack of architectural character and treeless lots they were seeing.

So they enlisted Jean Rehkamp Larson of Rehkamp Larson Architects in Minneapolis to explore expanding their 1937 home, including remodeling the kitchen and doubling the size of the cramped tuck-under garage. But even with those improvements, the family of four, which included 9-year-old twin boys, realized they would still have tiny bedrooms, outdated bathrooms, low ceilings and drafty windows that let in little light.

"It would be lots of money, effort and time, and it wouldn't solve all the issues with the house," said Rehkamp Larson.

The couple's frustration turned into excitement after they visited a newly built Linden Hills residence on the Homes by Architects tour. They loved how the cottage-style two-story with big front porch combined old-fashioned craftsmanship with modern functionality. Coincidentally, it also was designed by Rehkamp Larson.

"They saw the potential, that a new house could have the qualities of an old house," she said. And by tearing down the old house and building new, the couple could make the most of their large, tree-covered lot on Lake Rose, which they loved.

Rehkamp Larson's design for the family's new home is a modern interpretation of a traditional foursquare. On the outside, it boasts a classic welcoming front porch with beadboard ceiling, but inside there's an efficient open floor plan in which rooms flow from one to another.

"There's an order to old houses in how the facade and floor plan are organized," she said. "That was appealing to [the couple]."

To update the foursquare, Rehkamp Larson placed a partially open switchback staircase in the center of the home, rather than on a side wall. "The center stair is an anchoring element, and all the spaces wrap around it," she said. "It allows light to filter through all the rooms."

The homeowners were fans of Sarah Susanka's "better not bigger" design principles from her "Not So Big House" books and both had grown up in small, practical older houses. So Rehkamp Larson focused on Craftsman details, such as a built-in buffet and bookcases, quarter-sawn oak floors and decorative crown moldings, making every square foot count.

"The home is an expression of quality over quantity," she said. "It's designed to be efficient and have just the right amount of space the family needs. The quality is in the materials, extensive millwork and level of detail on all three levels."

Rehkamp Larson wove in a vintage cottage theme with beadboard accents, white enameled woodwork and window seats -- there's even one in the master bathroom. In the kitchen, the homeowners requested a built-in nook for casual meals because they had one in the first house they bought after they were married.

The home is not quite a full two stories, designed to minimize scale and give it a cottage feel, said Rehkamp Larson. The slanted rooflines create a cozy ambience in the upstairs bedrooms.

The homeowners also weighed the pros and cons of a detached vs. attached garage, which also can dramatically affect a home's scale. Their friends thought they were crazy when they chose to build a detached garage that perfectly matches the house rather than an attached garage. But by giving up sheltered comfort, they gained light and air on all four sides of the home.

"Two small buildings with space between them makes the exterior and entrance more pleasant," said Rehkamp Larson.

By starting from scratch, the family was able to build a house that feels old but still has all the amenities of a new home -- energy-efficient windows, a luxe master bathroom, second-floor laundry room, mudroom off a family entrance and closets bigger than a phone booth.

The new home came in at just over 3,000 square feet on three finished levels -- including the walk-out basement -- but lives larger. Rehkamp Larson shared her strategy for making a not-so-big house feel bigger.

"When I look at the floor plan, it's a small house with two big porches," she said. "Pick one or two elements, such as a porch bigger than expected or dramatic switchback stairs, to give a small house breathing space and make it feel bigger."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619