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East meets Midwest

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2011 - 11:32 AM

A couple's yen for zen drove the design of their modern Asian-inspired St. Paul home.

When they lived in Japan, Sarah and Fred Deschamps had a gorgeous view of Tokyo Tower from their rented home. So when they returned to Minnesota in 2007 and decided to build a home of their own, they wanted to replicate that feeling of being nestled in the trees with an arresting point of interest.

"Instead of Tokyo Tower, we have a 100-year-old silver maple," said Sarah. "And in the summer, our bedroom feels like a treehouse."

It's one of the many ways the Deschampses re-created the flavor of life they experienced in Tokyo, where they lived with their daughters when Fred worked for Northwest Airlines. In part because their daughters were school-aged, the Deschampses jumped at the chance to move back to St. Paul when Northwest merged with Delta. But they didn't want to leave behind the serene and simple spaces they had grown to love. And being close to family members was also high on the list.

"In Japan, grandparents often live with you and are an integral part of your life," Sarah said.

In the Mac-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul, they found the perfect site to build their Japanese-inspired house: a tree-covered lot right next door to Sarah's parents' home. While still in Tokyo, the Deschampses searched for a Minnesota architect to design an eco-friendly house that would fit in a traditional urban neighborhood. They hired Kelly Davis from SALA Architects' Stillwater firm.

"Kelly was on the same wavelength," said Fred. "He had a strong interest in Prairie-style architecture and in Japan. We knew we could work well together."

The Deschampses moved back to the Minnesota just in time for their builder to break ground.

Modern prairie

Davis' design combines traditional Prairie-style forms, such as a low-pitched roofline and deep overhangs, with understated Japanese-inspired interiors. "Both are based on a respect for nature and a strong connection to the environment," he said.

Davis sited the two-story home to preserve as many trees as possible. And he designed it in a long, rectangular shape to create more open land for a shared yard between Sarah's parents' home and their own. To allow for plenty of natural light and a view of the trees, Davis put most of the windows on the south side.

From the traditional Japanese entryway (called a genkan), it's clear that the home showcases Asian elements. Its sunken slate floor gives guests a place to remove their shoes and a translucent shoji screen marks the transition to the living room.

Davis' clean-lined interior creates a neutral backdrop for the Asian furnishings and art that Fred and Sarah collected while living abroad. And all the wood, including the bamboo flooring and birch cabinets, is similar in tone to give the house a calming quality.

"It's a quiet and serene place to escape from our stressful lives," said Fred, who is now an executive for Carlson Hotels. Sarah is development director for the Friends School of Minnesota.

The open floor plan, which includes two sitting rooms, a dining room and expansive kitchen, encourages a casual lifestyle, something the Deschampses wanted. The dining room/living room combo works well for an intimate dinner or a party of 50.

Fred, the family chef, collaborated with Davis to design a multipurpose functional kitchen. "A big center island for preparing meals was more important than top-of-the-line appliances," he said. The kitchen also holds a built-in corner banquette for daily family meals and a desk. The couple chose to eliminate hardware on the natural birch cabinets lining the walls. "We like the smooth look and simplicity of it," Sarah said.

One of the kitchen's smartest features is sliding pocket doors, commonly used in space-conscious Japanese homes, that close off the kitchen from the dining room.

"I prefer a closed-off space where I can focus on preparing the meal," said Fred. "When it's ready, I open the doors."

The second floor houses four no-frills bedrooms designed simply for sleeping. The only luxuries are a Japanese soaking tub and a laundry room. The family's favorite space is an overlook at the top of the stairs. It's become a mini-retreat for meditating and reading.

Eco-friendly

Making their home as green as possible was a high priority for the Deschampses.

"In Japan, everyone was so economical with energy, space and fuel," said Fred. "Since we were building from scratch, we tried to make a conscious effort to minimize our ecological footprint."

The south-facing windows maximize passive solar energy and Davis used ICF (insulated concrete form) construction in the foundation as well as in the 14-inch-thick walls.

"The walls are solid and soundproof," said Sarah. "We can't even hear the bagpipes playing at Macalester."

Inside, the Deschampses used low-VOC finishes, low-flow shower heads, halogen lamps with dimmers and installed high-efficiency heating and cooling systems and on-demand water heating.

"Our home is a microcosm of our life in Tokyo. It's not oversized, is extremely economical and fosters communal living," said Fred. "Building it allowed us to bring the feeling of Japan home."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619

To see a photo gallery of the Deschamps home go to:

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  • 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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