After they retired, Jeff and Susan Saffle were excited to make a fresh start in another state. Since 1977, the couple had been living in Salt Lake City. Over the past decade, their passion for bird-watching, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing had lured them to Minnesota countless times.
They spotted great gray owls at the Sax-Zim Bog north of Duluth, hiked the Gunflint Trail and identified birds at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area near Forest Lake.
Susan, an avowed "winter person," would move only to a state that offered four seasons and snow-related sports. The couple figured Minnesota must be a great place to live because "native Minnesotans never leave," Jeff noted. "We liked the politics and climate," he added. "And you don't have to worry about running out of water."
With the North Star State at the top of their relocation list, they started searching for the perfect site to build a retirement home.
During two summers, the Saffles flew into town and inspected more than 100 lots for sale in the Twin Cities metro area. They narrowed the search to the east side of St. Paul because that region offered better land value than the west side of Minneapolis, they said.
Finally, Jeff and Susan drove up to a 10-acre property for sale in Lake Elmo that felt just right. The lot was spacious and secluded, but not heavily wooded. "It had all the best things of Minnesota that we grew to love — rolling prairie, forest and wetlands," said Susan.
Architect Mark Larson and Will Spencer, of Rehkamp Larson Architects in Minneapolis, agreed with the couple's enthusiasm for the property.
"It was a beautiful site with a range of habitats and had great potential," said Larson, who had been enlisted by the Saffles to determine if it was suitable to build on.
Larson got his first clue about their devotion to their hobby when Jeff and Susan always had binoculars with them whenever they walked the site. "I had an idea to design the house as a bird blind," said Larson. "With views of the land in all directions."
The couple's passion for birding and nature inspired the retirement home's final flat-roof, low-slung form punctuated by rows of ribbon windows.
"It's a modern interpretation of Prairie-School style with Scandinavian influences," said Larson. The Saffles also requested one-level living — with no steps at the entry — with the goal to stay as they age. But their desire for 21st-century sustainable strategies also played a big role in the layout, composition and look of the landscape.
To generate electricity, 24 photovoltaic panels sprout up from the land on the south side of this little house on the Lake Elmo prairie. "It's a mistake not to use solar energy when you can," said Jeff, who tilts the panels to follow the seasons. "We want to add more panels in the future — and maybe a windmill."
Deep overhangs that block the hot summer sun, while allowing the sun's warmth in the winter, also minimize energy use.
"Another green strategy is to not build more than you need," said Larson. "How small can we make it without feeling cramped? We had to find that sweet spot."
The final design is 2,400 square feet, which was a downsizing from the Saffles' former 4,000-square-foot house in Utah. Their new house has two bedrooms and two bathrooms — with space for expansion in the unfinished lower level.
Inside, Larson compared the modern L-shaped open floor plan to "a bird spreading its wings." The main living spaces are anchored by an indoor "courtyard." Larson lifted the courtyard ceiling to 14 feet high to allow for clerestory windows on four sides to illuminate the spaces below, like a lantern. "The other sections of the home radiate from the courtyard, which is the hub of the house," he said.
Other rooms include offices for both Susan and Jeff, positioned at each end of the house to look out at wetlands and woods. The spare palette of durable materials, including beech, stone and recycled glass, is repeated throughout the house to unify the spaces.
The sunroom feels like a bird observatory with a spotting scope set up by the tall corner windows, which offer a panoramic view of the pond and wildflower prairie. The Saffles apply decals on the windows to prevent birds from flying into the glass.
"After bird-watching for 28 years in Utah, we only identified about 75 birds in our yard," said Jeff. In Minnesota, "We've ID'd 110 birds in just a year and a half."
The sunroom's Tulikivi Finnish soapstone wood-burning stove was a big splurge, but "the design is sleek and sophisticated and kicks out the heat," said Jeff. The free-standing two-sided stove also serves as an unobtrusive divider between the sunroom and living room.
The adjacent kitchen has a dropped ceiling to "give it a sheltering feeling," said Spencer. The walnut center island is topped with pieces of smooth recycled glass backpainted a gray-green. "The little air bubbles make it look like ice," said Susan, who got the idea from a shelter magazine.
Larson strategically placed a window above the kitchen sink so Jeff and Susan can watch the wild turkeys trotting across their backyard to peck at seed from bird feeders. "The wild turkeys and mothers herding the chicks have proliferated since we moved in," said Susan.
And so have the numbers of butterflies and birds visiting their yard, thanks to landscape work by Prairie Restorations. The couple hired the Minnesota ecological restoration company to re-establish native prairies on the existing soybean fields.
Prairie Restorations sowed wildflower seeds and turned 5 acres of the Saffles' land into a low-maintenance colorful native landscape. Diane Hilscher of Hilscher Design & Ecology also plotted out rain gardens of deep-rooted native plants to capture rainwater runoff.
The Saffles' new home has become a bird-watching mecca.
"Great blue herons and wood ducks are considered exotic in Utah," said Jeff. "Now we see them right on our property."