During the workweek, architect Julie Snow makes her home in a traditional 1920s house on a stately boulevard in southwest Minneapolis.

But every other weekend, summer and winter, Snow heads north to a radically different home: a glass-walled rectangle overlooking Lake Superior.

Retreating to a cabin on a lake is a classic Minnesota ritual. But while Snow's site is rustic, her "cabin" is anything but. It's sleek, modern and sophisticated, yet surprisingly maintenance-free, the better for relaxing.

"It's like taking blood-pressure medication," Snow said with a laugh. "Once you get to Duluth, your heart rate drops."

Snow, who leads a busy commercial and residential practice (Julie Snow Architects) and her husband, Jack, had been thinking about building a weekend getaway home near Lake Pepin, Wis. Then a friend showed Snow photos of some undeveloped land on Lake Superior.

Frigid trip

Snow and her husband headed north on a subzero January day to check out the property. "We packed the dogs, a bottle of wine and the snowshoes," she said.

Lake Pepin was soon forgotten. The couple fell in love with the rugged, rocky piece of shoreline. "It took our breath away," Snow said. "We decided, 'We've got to do this.'"

So Snow started sketching. "It's the first thing I designed for my family," she said.

The biggest challenge was protecting the character of the pristine site. "We wanted to keep it as sloped and natural as possible," Snow said. To that end, Snow designed the house on a platform that rests just above the ground and allows water to run freely across the land.

Snow and her husband have three young-adult children, and they wanted a place that could comfortably accommodate different types of weekend gatherings. "It had to feel right for a big group of family and friends or just the two of us," Snow said.

With that in mind, she created a design that reduced the house to a few essential elements: two simple glass-walled rectangles connected by a deck. The larger one (1,000 square feet) contains a master bedroom and bath, a small bedroom and a wide open living/dining space. The smaller rectangle, dubbed "the studio," is where guests often stay. And the deck in between (dubbed "the shiver walk" by one guest), adds a measure of separation and privacy.

Skateboard material

The two black boxes are clad in Skatelite, a resin material typically used to surface skateboard ramps. "You don't have to paint it or wash it -- it's a great product," Snow said.

In summer, the house is hidden in the trees. In winter, the black exterior blends with the dark tree trunks.

Inside, the wall of glass offers a panoramic view of Lake Superior. The south-facing windows, argon-filled with low-e coating, also contribute to the home's passive solar design.

The opposite wall is designed to "conceal the complexities of daily life." There, an expanse of sleek white melamine cabinets houses the refrigerator, pantry, washer/dryer and virtually everything else.

The cabinets are organized by function, with one for frequently used items such as dog food, another for entertainment-related items such as books, CDs, DVDs, poker chips and a projector. "We watch movies on the kitchen wall," Snow said. "When we leave, we put everything away. When we come, it's not cluttered."

Snow admits that she sometimes brings work along to the lake. "But it doesn't feel so pressured," she said. "At home [in Minneapolis], the office is too close. I work differently up there. More focused, less interruption."

But mostly she goes Up North to relax. "It's definitely enhanced our lives," she said. "The kids like it. If we'd built it while they were in high school, they would have hated it because they were away from their friends. Now they come with friends."

And Snow, who has won national industry awards for her work, considers her "cabin" her most successful -- and most fun -- project. "It's the best thing I've ever done," she said. "And being able to get away ... it's a life-saver."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784