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Urban edge in the country

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2007 - 2:36 PM

Leanne Stremcha s roots in Northfield, Minn., run deep. Her great-grandparents homesteaded there, she s lived there most of her life and she s been a Northfield Master Gardener for more than a decade.

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The simple, rectangular shape and durable industrial materials of Jeff and Leanne Stremcha’s Northfield house help keep maintenance and energy costs low. It has a block foundation, 8-inch walls, stucco siding and steel deck railings. The narrow shape facilitates natural light, ventilation and many views.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Leanne Stremcha s roots in Northfield, Minn., run deep. Her great-grandparents homesteaded there, she s lived there most of her life and she s been a Northfield Master Gardener for more than a decade.

So when she and her husband, Jeff, decided to build a house, they wanted to stay in the area. Trouble was, Leanne wanted to live in town and Jeff craved the country.

The compromise? A city house in the country.

After finding a wooded 10-acre parcel on the outskirts of Northfield, they met with a big-city architect, Eric Odor of SALA Architects in Minneapolis, to discuss their design conundrum.

Their wish list was relatively simple: an energy-efficient house with a clean, modern design and space for Leanne s art studio and Jeff s motorcycles.

Leanne was adamant that the design be fresh, original and devoid of all signs of the precious cottage style that you might expect of a country house.

I really love contemporary design and I m baffled by the current notion that people need to embrace some past historical design, she said. This is our chance to leave our footprint.

Odor was thrilled by the prospect.

These are the opportunities you re always looking for, he said. It s a chance to be as creative as you can be; it s kind of fun.

The Stremchas had been collecting photos and articles that appealed to them, but they didn t present them to Odor as a visual guide to their new house.

They didn t show me too much because they didn t want to lead the witness too much, he said. But too much information is never enough when it comes to good design. We re like an auteur filmmaker and we re creating our own world the more information I have the better.

Odor s premise was this: The house in the woods that you think is a barn is really not a barn at all. Closer inspection reveals that it looks more like an industrial warehouse.

The two-story house is a 28-foot-wide rectangle built into the side of a hill. The long side of the house runs parallel to the southwest-facing hillside and the narrow end of the house gets the best views.

This simple shape has several advantages. It reduces the amount of labor and materials that it takes to build the envelope, which includes all the framing, insulation, stucco and windows. And it created an opportunity to build an industrial, loft-like space.

Sustainability and energy efficiency were high priorities. The foundation is made of thick concrete blocks and the walls are framed with thick 2- by 8-foot studs that create deep, well-insulated side walls that make the building feel like an old warehouse with deep stone windowsills. There s also a geothermal heat pump system that keeps the gas and electric bill at about $130 a month for the 2,700-square-foot house.

The floor plan was conceived as an open warehouse with an 8- by 12-foot box centered in the middle of each of the three levels. This box, which functions like an elevator shaft in an old warehouse, has multiple purposes.

It creates a place to run the utilities and mechanical systems from floor to floor, including wiring, plumbing, phone lines and ductwork. All the viscera of the building goes through that central core, Odor said.

The core also helps define the rooms on each level by creating a modest amount of visual separation. On the main level, for example, this central box separates the kitchen from the dining room and the living room from the mudroom. A glass panel set into the slate flooring lets light flow between levels and creates a vertical connection among all three floors.

  • about this series

  • The Home of the Month program is a partnership between the Star Tribune and the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It features architect-designed houses selected by a jury of experts. The houses represent a range of prices, styles and locations.

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