You just never know where a wooded trail might take you.
Kirsten and Jon Yocum, with their two children, were biking on the Gateway State Trail near Stillwater when they stumbled upon a wooded wonderland that would change their lives.
A “For Sale” sign directed them onto a dirt road that curved up a hill. Finally, the Yocums saw a tall, skinny house in the clearing. Beyond it was a small lake glistening in the sun, encircled by white oaks and pines.
“It was in the summer,” recalled Kirsten. “And the setting was unreal.”
The couple, who were living in Lake Elmo, had been hunting for property on water with more land than they had in the suburbs. A flier noted that this house sat on a vast 116 acres.
It was 2012, and the family just wasn’t ready to live in the middle of the woods. “The size of the property was daunting,” said Jon.
Two years later, the Yocums were even more serious about building a new home but still hadn’t found the perfect piece of land. The 116-acre property, in Grant near Stillwater, was still for sale. This time, “We were ready,” said Kirsten. “But it was a lot of land and responsibility.”
And what about that tall, skinny house? The couple originally had hoped to save and modify the 1960s structure, so they consulted with architect Ben Awes, who had remodeled their basement 10 years earlier. They were Awes’ first clients when he launched his firm, CityDeskStudio, in St. Paul.
This home had been empty for a while. It had mold inside the walls and required extensive costly repairs. The Yocums also couldn’t put on an addition because it was too close to the lake. “We explored renovation and expansion — but it wasn’t feasible,” said Awes.
The smart decision, they concluded, was to tear it down and start fresh. “This let us figure out the best way to plan a house to best complement the property,” said Jon.
The Yocums also had impactful long-term goals. “We wanted to be good stewards of the water and the land,” said Kirsten. Their mission was to minimize disturbance of the landscape and watershed — with input from the Brown’s Creek Watershed District — while building a new one-story house equipped with age-in-place and sustainable features.
“The property has a beautiful natural clearing,” said Awes. “We placed the house along a ridge line that reveals incredible natural moments.”
The Yocums wanted a home scaled down to complement, rather than dominate, the wooded setting. Awes designed a low-slung silhouette punctuated by triple gables, or peaks, jutting out from the roof.
You’d never guess that behind the red front door of the simple Scandinavian modern dwelling there are concrete floors heated by a geothermal system, huge expanses of glass and an elevator. Some of the furniture, such as the live-edge dining room table, was milled from white oak felled on the site.
The main floor includes the kitchen-living-dining area and an owners’ suite. The lower-level walkout holds bedrooms for Nora and Oliver, the couple’s teenage children, and hang-out space. An accessible in-law apartment was designed for Kirsten’s mother, Judy Eckblad.
Kirsten’s ceramic dish of Falu red, a traditional Scandinavian hue, was part of the inspiration for the design and color on the front door and an interior staircase. “I started liking Scandinavian style in furniture,” she said, admiring photos of Swedish red country cottages against the stark white snow.
The Yocums both have Scandinavian heritage, and both like the flexibility and adaptability of the architectural style’s open spaces. “It’s easy to live in — not formal — and functional,” said Jon.
The Falu red front door opens to Awes’ modern interpretation of a foyer — a wood-slatted cube — which transitions to the living areas. “It feels intimate at first, but then it opens up to the view,” said Jon.
Inside, the three peaks of different dimensions create a dramatic triangular-shaped ceiling, defining spaces without using walls.
The high windows “give volume and light without feeling out of scale,” said Awes. And they also offer unexpected views. “One night the full moon was rising over the pine trees,” said Eckblad. “It was magical.”
The 36-foot-long wall of glass, including two sliding door sections, transports the family to the water and forested surroundings — in good weather and bad.
It’s a vast window to the four-season wonders of the natural world, from a bald eagle soaring across the sky to ducks swimming in the pond.
“It feels so private and far away — but we’re only a half-hour from downtown St. Paul,” said Jon.
And the family never has to flip a switch until it gets dark out, conserving energy.
The Yocums are avid cooks, and the crisp white workhorse kitchen is the hub of the home. The massive center island is topped with four thick slabs of soapstone scored at a reuse center years ago. The sink is perfectly positioned so the cook can gaze at the water. A ledge jutting out from the center island is made of oak from trees on their property.
“We tried to recycle and use locally sourced materials to make a smaller impact on the environment,” said Kirsten.
You can’t miss the vibrant red stairs leading down to the lower level. “Ben said, ‘Let’s make the stairs red,’ ” recalled Jon. “At first we thought it would be over the top, but it ties all the red together.”
In the walkout lower level, the thermal-mass-insulated concrete walls create a tight energy-efficient envelope. In her mother’s apartment, Kirsten, a former physical therapist, blended safety and accessibility features, such as wider doorways and an elevator, into the design.
“Ben was able to work with two distinct styles and spaces,” said Kirsten, noting that her mother’s taste leans toward cottage-style. She converted a table into a center island and topped it with quartz.
Initially, the garage was going to be attached — this is Minnesota, after all — but it blocked the flow from the home down to the lakeshore. Instead they built a detached garage, connected to the house by a sheltered walkway. “This opened up a lookout space, and now it’s one of our favorite spots,” said Jon.
Landscaping by Urban Ecosystems includes several rain gardens to capture and filter stormwater runoff, with water flowing down a cascade of rocks. “When it rains, it’s like a water feature,” said Jon.
Today the outdoorsy family can hop on cross-country ski trails, skate across the small lake in winter and kayak in the summer, and, of course, bike on the Gateway Trail.
From the time they committed to the vast acreage to the home’s completion in 2017, the Yocums planned on embracing their paradise found for the long term.
“This was a real collaboration with Kirsten and Jon,” said Awes. “They had a strong sense of what home meant to them.”
“We want to feel good about how we live and be responsible and thoughtful about the environment,” said Kirsten.