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Sarah and Casey Crane fell in love with an empty lot high above the Zumbro River. The property, which sloped toward the water, offered 3 acres of wooded privacy and was a short drive to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where they both work.
The only problem was that the slope was awfully steep.
The couple brought in architect Eric Odor, of SALA Architects in Minneapolis, to look at the land. "We wanted to find out if we could build a house without it falling off the hill," said Sarah.
It could be done, said Odor, who had worked in Southern California designing homes perched on the edge of steep canyons, but they'd have to budget for slightly higher excavation costs.
The site presented another challenge. To minimize the effect on the environment and to utilize passive solar heating, Odor wanted to position the house along the east-to-west contours of the lot. That meant the foundation "would act as a dam blocking rainwater runoff down the hill," he said. To route runoff around the house, Odor came up with the idea of building the house in three separate pieces -- or "pods" -- with spillways between them.
One pod contains the garage, another the living spaces and the third has a guest bedroom and a TV/music room. The design, said Odor, "lessens the apparent mass," and makes the 2,400-square-foot home "sit lightly on the land."
The Cranes' desire for open spaces and walls of glass, combined with Sarah's disdain for clutter, helped shape the rest of the house. "We knew we didn't want your standard colonial," said Casey.
The clean-lined interiors reflect their tastes. Sarah gravitates toward spare, efficiently designed rooms with lots of storage. Casey, who studied in China in the 1990s, has an appreciation of Asian architecture.
"But we didn't want it to look like the Forbidden City, with ornate design and gold filigree," he said. "I like the clean Asian aesthetic where there's lots of light and it's open and airy but still has a sense of warmth."
The shoji-like glass screen on the garage door (which glows at night) is the first thing visitors see of this one-of-a-kind home. A long deck hugs the side of the garage and continues to the home's entry. "It gives you an instant view of the river valley even before you reach the front door," said Sarah.
The Cranes were adamant about using low-maintenance materials, especially on the exterior, which is made of Trex decking, steel cable railings and fiber cement siding. "We never want to have to stain anything ever again," said Sarah.
Windows to the world
Inside, the house is drenched in natural light, thanks to massive floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the woods and, in the distance, the river.
"It gives you the impression that you're in a treehouse," said Sarah.
The windows -- "as big as they make them," said Odor -- were one of the upgrades the Cranes wanted. "We chose to spend $20,000 more than what it would [typically] cost for windows for a house this size," said Casey.
The wide open floor plan allows the family to see outdoors from almost anywhere in the home.
Sarah helped design the U-shaped kitchen so that everything is easily within reach. She chose light maple cabinets to offset the Minnesota black granite countertops. To add color and shimmery texture, Odor repeated the glass tile backsplash on a far kitchen wall. He also paneled the ceiling with wood to warm it up and break up the rectangular floor plan.
"This kitchen is so beautiful and functional," said Sarah.
"It's a pleasure even to do the dishes, because the sink looks out into the valley."
From the kitchen, there's a view of the living room's ribbon fireplace, which is surrounded by multi-colored slate. (Sarah nixed a mantel as just another spot for clutter.)
At the top of the staircase to the second floor, there's a mini-library with built-in bookshelves and a playroom for their two children, as well as three bedrooms and two bathrooms, all sized to keep the home under 2,500 square feet.
Design within reach
With Sarah's guidance, the home was designed to be easy to live in now and accessible for the Cranes in the decades to come. Sarah, a primary care doctor specializing in geriatrics, helped integrate universal design features such as wide doorways, roll-in showers and no stairs at the home's entry.
The Cranes were also thinking ahead regarding energy costs and sustainability.
"From the get-go, we wanted it to be as green as we could make it within our budget," said Casey. "Part of being green is being small."
They put their money into geothermal heating and cooling, and used sustainable materials such as a recyclable steel roof, formaldehyde-free cabinets and low-flow fixtures. They used bamboo, a renewable resource, in the flooring and a bathroom vanity top.
"We also chose bamboo because it's harder than oak and holds up well with kids and a dog," said Casey.
The Cranes admit that their contemporary home stands out in Rochester, but said they consider it their escape after a long day at the clinic.
"The home has a zen feeling because of its simplicity and lack of clutter," said Odor.
"There's not a complicated palette of materials, just glass, wood and stone."
Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619