Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

Gingerbread builder extraordinaire

  • Article by: Rick Nelson
  • Star Tribune
  • December 12, 2012 - 9:00 AM

Over the course of his 25-year career, architect Dan Avchen has worked with a staggering variety of building materials. But gingerbread hadn't been one of them.

That didn't stop him from designing a pair of gingerbread houses: a traditional house (which he dubbed a "McMansion," albeit an elegant one) and a contemporary house based upon one of his pet projects, a planned series of loft-like houses built on small urban lots.

As chief executive officer of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson in Minneapolis, Avchen oversees more than 500 architects, engineers, designers and support staff. The architectural firm, one of the nation's largest, is responsible for a number of notable Twin Cities buildings, including the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul and the Barbara Barker Center for Dance at the University of Minnesota.

As with any building project, refinements started the moment Avchen rolled out his preliminary blueprints. A complicated garage was the first thing to go. "We're building with cake," said Avchen, "and still my budget is getting cut."

Another challenge was decorative. With the traditional house, Avchen went the whimsical route, taking his color cues from the red, green and white candy canes that made up the porch's columns. "The color scheme revolves around available materials," he said. "It's really a matter of being inspired by the candy that we find."

The modern house's minimalism was a big obstacle. "It's hard to achieve clean lines when you're working with Chiclets and Neccos," he said. In the end, Avchen chose simple, almost monochromatic decorations, with splashes of color for dramatic effect. "It's very de Stijl," he said.

Avchen's advice for do-it-yourself gingerbreaders? "It's important that the two houses 'read' very differently from one another," he said. "The modern house should be cool and smooth; the traditional house should be warm and textured. But they can't be too serious. They have to be playful."

Although he's pleased with both designs, Avchen, an accomplished cook, prefers the modern house. "It really pushes the gingerbread envelope," he said. "I like that."

-- Rick Nelson

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