An unexpected settling of soil led Ruth Balbach and Jim Diem to build the modern family home they’ve always wanted.
In 2010, the couple were living in an older house in Edina. “We had this crazy idea to downsize and modernize,” said Balbach.
They found the ideal lot with a smaller, manageable yard across from an Edina city park for their two boys. But the 1950s rambler that came with the lot was far from a good fit for their family. So Balbach and Diem planned to transform the cramped, cut-up interiors into a clean-lined contemporary abode with expanses of glass and wide-open spaces. They wanted something like architect Christian Dean’s boxy addition to his own home, which they had admired on the cover of Dwell magazine.
“We knew we wanted a house with a strong modern sensibility,” said Balbach. They connected with Dean, who was with the Minneapolis firm CityDeskStudio at the time and recently had been profiled as an “emerging talent” in modernist architecture in Midwest Home magazine.
Dean drew up preliminary plans for a whole-house makeover, using the existing foundation.
But a surveyor unearthed a big obstacle to the planned project. “The house was settling into the original bog, and the soil was spongy,” recalled Dean. “The surveyor said it felt like standing on a water bed.”
With the renovation option off the table, the couple explored building a new home. “The budget changes were a little frightening,” said Balbach. “But I’m a roll-with-it girl.”
Since the rambler was in decent condition, the couple hired a house mover to transport it to another site where it could be re-used. Starting with a clean slate, Dean was able to design a flat-roofed, box-shaped home that fits more narrowly on the site than the existing wide rambler. It boasts better views of the park and gardens and “breathing room from the neighbors,” said Dean. “The design has a linear quality shaped by the site, with the largest views out the front.”
Dean gave the two-story stacked structure a compact 1,100-square-foot footprint. The base, or main level, is a concrete shell, and the second floor is a wood-sided box. “We wanted the home to be a smart, sensible use of the lot, and not sprawl and encroach on the neighbors,” said Balbach.
To give the family more living space, Dean designed cantilevered wood “bump-outs” on two sides of the house, which also add architectural interest so “it’s not a straight-up simple box,” he said.
The home’s contrasting concrete and wood exterior, combined with a variety of window shapes and sizes — from horizontal clerestories to vertical slits — gives it a striking graphic quality.
“It’s simple and minimal, so it gets its punch through contrasting materials and graphic elements — like the straight lines of the steel and cable staircase,” said Dean, referring to the home’s open black steel stairs leading to the second floor.
Building from the ground up allowed the homeowners to “craft every space and create a floor plan we wanted,” said Balbach, a creative director for Target. Raw concrete walls surround the L-shaped open floor plan, which encompasses the kitchen, dining and living rooms.
Dean used the innovative Thermomass insulated concrete foundation and wall system. “If a client likes concrete, it’s a fabulous energy-efficient system, as well as one beautiful wall material for the inside and outside,” said Dean. “I think concrete is very organic and has depth — as long as it’s paired with other materials.”
Balbach agreed. “We like the texture of concrete — it’s true to the material.”
For the living room, Dean chose a massive aluminum commercial storefront window facing the street and the park. He even extended the window below the living-room floor to draw light into the basement TV room. “We’re happy to live in a house of glass,” said Balbach, looking out the movie-screen size window. “At night, we just pull down the blinds.”
A Scandinavian wood-burning stove warms up the concrete gray and white spaces even when there is not a crackling fire. “I wanted to be able to see the fire from the kitchen when I was cooking,” said Balbach, who was involved in every aspect of the oversized galley-style kitchen’s design. “I mapped everything out — pots and pans to wine glasses. This is my domain.”
The kitchen’s multi-grained oak floor and walnut island are a pleasing juxtaposition to glossy white Ikea cabinets and polished nickel pulls. “We added lots of wood details, so it doesn’t feel like living in a concrete bunker,” said Dean.
A good-sized mudroom with plenty of storage was a high priority for Diem, a snowboarding coach. The family can come in from the detached garage and drop everything inside a big closet, then walk up a few steps to the kitchen.
The second floor houses the private sleeping quarters — two boys’ bedrooms and an owner’s suite facing the park with a “giant walk-in closet, which we never had in our old house,” said Balbach.
Dean is pleased with the way the compact house “lives large.” “It can feel intimate for a couple of people but also accommodate a large gathering — without overbuilding,” he said.
Balbach can’t wait for warm weather so she can slide open the big double doors between the dining room and enclosed deck. Dean expanded the living spaces by creating a smooth flow from the inside to the outside.
“There’s so much light, and we can feel the breeze,” she said. “It feels like we’re in Southern California.