How do you build a house that doesn't turn its back on the landscape? The latest Home of the Month selection shows you how.
Architect Katherine Hillbrand believes that good design should be a reflection of life itself, which is rarely predictable and always nonlinear.
"Sometimes we get too rigid about architecture," Hillbrand said. "I like the idea of designing a home with surprise and playfulness in it. I think it brings cheerfulness to your life."
So when an empty-nester couple hired Hillbrand and designer Meghan Cornell of SALA Architects to design a new house for their heavily wooded site near Scandia, Minn., they created one that "has a quirky personality that reminds us that life is full of overlaps and surprises and that these can exist within the most harmonious environs," Hillbrand said.
A blank slate
The creation of that house started with a site visit. It was a brilliant fall day, the leaves had already turned and Hillbrand and Cornell were struck by the intense beauty of the thick forest and the rich fall colors.
It was clear to them, Hillbrand said, that the highest priority on this project was going to be deference to the landscape.
"I'd never seen a couple so in love with their property, they'd just go out there and stand and swoon," Hillbrand said. "The most important thing was to create a place that was worthy of the property."
Hillbrand and Cornell walked the site, collected fallen leaves as inspiration for color choices and searched for the most cherished views.
Hillbrand and Cornell found a spot for the house in a clearing at the end of a long, winding driveway, which takes you through a thick stand of tall oaks, past a pond and into a clearing. There, you catch a glimpse of the house, which is snuggled into the side of the hill.
The shape of the house is somewhat unusual. The main section is a rough rectangle with the long south side maximizing natural light and offering views of the woods.
Those views aren't the most interesting on the property, so the more utilitarian rooms, including the kitchen and bathroom, were lined up along that side of the house.
"In the kitchen you're just doing operative things and not contemplating life or reading a book," Cornell said.
The north side of the house, which can be seen as a separate, smaller rectangle, is splayed out to give the rooms, including the office, gathering room and master bedroom, views of several small clearings in the woods and a small wetland.
Inside, the intersecting shapes create an angled wall that cuts through the center of the house, creating several asymmetrical and overlapping rooms that bring a certain unexpected quality to what is otherwise a well-tuned floor plan.
"It's like Navajo jewelry," Hillbrand said. "They'll make this perfect thing and deliberately make a mistake."
Ceiling heights define spaces
After years of living in a traditional suburban house, Hillbrand and Cornell's clients wanted a modern, open floor with the flexibility to make two people or 20 feel at home.
The downside of these open plans is rooms that lose their shape and function. To remedy this, Hillbrand and Cornell used a variety of ceiling heights to give rooms shape.
The dining room, for example, has low, 7-foot, 3-inch ceilings that encourage sitting. The kitchen has normal ceiling heights, but the gathering room has high gabled ceilings that make the space feel more inviting for larger groups of people. Even the height of the outdoor pergola over the front entrance was designed to match the 8-foot ceilings in the entry foyer to "imply that you are entering the intimacy of the house even though you're outside," Cornell said. "So you're starting to feel sheltered when you're under that trellis."
A garage that doesn't dominate
The three-car garages that are standard in today's new houses can overwhelm the houses they're built to serve, making it particularly difficult to design a small house with a garage that doesn't dwarf the house. A big attached garage wasn't a priority for these homeowners, so they considered something radical: building a detached garage or no garage at all.
But in a cold-weather state, a detached garage can be resale suicide. So a compromise was struck: A one-car garage that's connected to the house via a covered breezeway.
"They wanted to leave the car behind and enter the home in an unmechanized way," Hillbrand said.
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376