The back of Kathy Wallace and Sarah Pradt's house in St. Paul gets a lot of light. But for the first 14 years they lived there, they didn't see much of it.
That's because the spaces on the back of the house weren't very inviting: an old sloping porch that attracted wasps, a tiny den/guest room and a small, outdated kitchen.
"The south side of the house was wasted," Pradt said. "We lived in the dark end of the house."
They decided to get rid of their old porch and reconfigure their kitchen so that they and their preteen daughter could all be together in the space while preparing dinner.
Wallace and Pradt had admired a kitchen addition recently undertaken by some friends. "It transformed the house," Wallace said. The architect for that project was Geoff Warner of Alchemy Architects, and they decided to give him a call.
Warner took one look at Wallace and Pradt's house and knew something had to go: the wall that separated the kitchen from the porch and den.
"It was a classic, 'I wonder why they did that?'" Warner recalled. "There was nothing wrong with the porch but it blocked off light. They didn't need more room, they just needed it configured differently."
Without the wall, Wallace and Pradt could get lots more light and a better back entry. Plus, with a modest addition, they could add an eating area that opened to a better, brighter room where the dark porch and den had been.
It was a bigger project than they'd originally planned on, but Wallace, a commercial architect herself, could see that it made a lot of sense.
"It's really good to have someone with an outside view," she said. "Because we live here, we had a harder time seeing it. Geoff took us places we couldn't go. He got us unstuck."
Once they warmed to the idea of tearing down the wall, they started adding their own ideas.
Both Wallace and Pradt are fans of Japanese design. Pradt, a Japanese film and literature scholar, grew up in Japan, and the couple lived in Kyoto for five years.
They wanted their new back entry to incorporate the Japanese concepts of engawa and genkan -- a transition space from the indoors to the outdoors, with a raised platform and a bench. In Japanese tradition, people remove their shoes when entering a home, sliding them under the platform and replacing them with house slippers.
"It's a psychological thing when you're coming in, a way to keep the inside and outside separate," Pradt said.
They also wanted to incorporate some Scandinavian design elements, including clean lines and light-colored exposed wood.
"Neither of us are Scandinavian, but living in Minnesota, you see that influence," said Pradt, who plays hardanger with a Norwegian fiddle group. "We were also influenced by our neighbor -- she's like the Finnish Martha Stewart."
Warner designed a 6-by-25-foot addition for the rear of the house that incorporated those ethnic influences while transforming both the kitchen and the den, adding a breakfast nook, a sunny sitting area and a steel support column where the wall had been.
House with a name
The most challenging aspect of the project was incorporating passive-solar design, turning the addition into "an engine to heat the house," Warner said.
The sitting area has a thick concrete floor that absorbs heat from the sunlight streaming through the new south-facing sliding-glass doors. "Now it's like a beach back here," Pradt said.
The couple were able to hold down costs by taking advantage of a bulk-purchase program, rebate and tax credit for their solar panels and installation. They also did some of the finishing work themselves, including painting. Pradt even tried her hand at liming the oak cabinets that give their kitchen its soft Scandinavian ambience.
"You rub a chemical into it and sand it, multiple times," she said, which gave her an appreciation of the time-consuming technique. "I spent a whole day at the shop in Fridley and did seven boards."
During the project, they coined a term for their remodeled house with its fusion of influences: Minmojaska (Minnesota modern Japanese Scandinavian). After the project was completed, Warner presented them with a metal plaque for the exterior that spells out "Minmojaska House."
"I never thought I would live in a house with a name," Pradt said with a laugh.
Their addition not only transformed their house, it transformed the way they live in it. "It's made a huge difference," Wallace said. "We live downstairs now. We used to use our bedroom for watching TV and hanging out, but it's just so comfortable down here, with all the light and the in-floor heat."
"It's so funny we spent all those years turning our back on the sun," Pradt said.
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784