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Trent and Shelley Gilliss were ready to embrace the future.
Although they'd been comfortable in their 1920s bungalow, they were longing for something a little more modern. "We liked the woodwork and character in old homes," said Shelley. "But we also like clean lines and open rooms."
But trading old for new wouldn't be that simple, in part because the Gillisses wanted to stay in the city. That sent them hunting for an empty lot in Minneapolis or St. Paul that they could afford.
The Gillisses couldn't believe their luck when they found a prime piece of land in Minneapolis' Bryn Mawr neighborhood. The property boasted impressive views of the downtown Minneapolis skyline and was right across the street from Bryn Mawr Meadows park. The drawback: The sloping, pie-shaped corner lot made it challenging to site the home so that it could capitalize on the views.
Architect Mike Bader of Fuse57 Architecture in St. Paul also had to meet Minneapolis zoning codes, which require a home to be set back a specific number of feet from the street and adjoining property lines.
To get a home that worked on the site -- and that worked for Trent and Shelley -- the couple collaborated with Bader (a family friend) on and off for two years. After 12 different designs and countless changes, the Gillesses settled on a 2,300-square-foot, two-story home with three bedrooms, three bathrooms and an unfinished basement.
The home Bader created resembles two boxes placed side-by-side and nestled in the sloping site. A rectangular box houses the kitchen, entryway, powder room and dining room. A square box holds the living room, which is a step down from the kitchen. Because the spaces are separate but interconnected, the Gillisses can prepare meals in the kitchen and see their two boys playing in the living room.
"You can be part of the social gathering space in the kitchen," said Trent. "But yet you can get away."
To connect the home to its park-like setting, Bader designed 16-foot-long sliding doors in the living room that lead to an expansive cedar deck. There's also a recessed second-floor deck that allows for a bird's-eye view of the landscape. Although the home has a main entry, the deck acts as a more casual second entry.
"Our big deck is like our front stoop," said Trent, pointing out one of the old-house features they reinvented in their new house.
The thoroughly modern exterior, which features a flat roof, expanses of glass and steel siding, could easily have looked out of place in the a neighborhood of pre-World War II bungalows, cottages and Tudors. But Bader made a conscious effort to have the home blend in with the older housing stock.
"I designed the home to be low to the ground and built within the site as much as possible so it felt approachable and within the scale of the neighboring houses," he said.
Minimal and warm
To keep the interior clean-lined yet warm-feeling, Bader softened the minimalist styling and metal accents by using warm woods. The exposed steel beams and Corten steel fireplace surround are softened by walnut floors, massive Douglas fir windows and cedar plank walls and ceilings.
"We limited it to a handful of tactile materials -- wood, stone, concrete and steel -- and then repeated them inside and out," he said.
For the streamlined Euro-style kitchen, Trent asked Bader to design a more modern version of traditional cabinets he saw in a Martha Stewart Living magazine. Sleek Danish pulls provided a crowning touch.
Bader also integrated clerestory windows, a common feature in contemporary-style homes, to draw in natural light and provide privacy.
"They were a delightful surprise," said Trent of the high windows. "I can see the walnut tree all year long and it feels like it's reaching in."
In addition to the bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry room upstairs, Bader carved out a cozy reading/TV room where the couple unwind with their boys, ages 3 and 5, before bed.
"At first, I wanted a family room on the main floor," said Shelley, "but this has turned out to be one of my favorite spots."
To keep within their budget, the couple had to make tradeoffs, such as building a carport instead of a garage. But they didn't compromise on what they considered essentials.
"Quality woodwork and fixtures were more important to us than square footage," Trent added.
And they spent money on green features -- including spray-foam insulation, a thermal-mass foundation and a high-efficiency furnace -- because they'll pay for themselves in the long term.
But for Trent and Shelley, the best value of all was having flexible, open, free-flowing spaces that encourage more togetherness.
"I interact with my boys more," said Trent. "I watch them do artwork and they watch me make eggs. Then they'll ask if they can crack one."
Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619
• Do projects in phases, if possible. (They plan to tackle landscaping and a paver driveway soon.)
• Ask about a designer discount when shopping for everything from light fixtures to carpet.
• DIY when you can. They saved $3,000 by installing modular carpet squares upstairs.
• Spend for impact. In the kids' bathroom, they used marble tile on the floor and on an accent wall and less-pricey subway tile on the rest.
• Be sure to set aside money for unexpected costs.