The house was designed to be modern, green and family friendly for Roxanne Nelson, Delcan Flynn, Cormac Flynn, Kevin Flynn and Maziere Flynn.

Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

Bigger, better, greener

  • Article by: JUDY ARGINTEANU
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • October 31, 2009 - 1:52 PM

The scale is deliberately modest, the colors tasteful, the proportions harmonious, but there's no debating that the house on a quiet street in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood stands out from its neighbors. It's not a typical renovation -- at least not yet.

But homeowners/architects Kevin Flynn and Roxanne Nelson hope projects like this one will become more common. Their home is an ambitious demonstration in sustainable design, construction and materials, complete with solar panels for hot water and for heat, and an 800-square-foot green roof. It's all packaged in a clean, modern aesthetic that belies the 1940s Cape Cod they started with.

Flynn and Nelson designed and supervised every aspect of the renovation, down to the glowing blue doorbell. The couple, who have three children, wanted a home that could adapt to their family, had office space for Kevin and was within walking distance of public transportation and amenities. They also wanted to prove that a green renovation could emerge from the bones of an existing home on a standard city lot.

"Renovation" might be an overly modest term, however. Flynn and Nelson demolished the original gabled upper story and replaced it with a full second floor. They put on an addition that took the house from 1,676 to 3,006 square feet. They also moved the front door several feet to create a direct path to the kitchen and replaced the original door with a window to bring in more light.

Open, not massive

The addition made room for a larger kitchen, which opens into new dining and living areas off the back of the house. While the addition feels spacious, none of the rooms within it is particularly large. Still, the open floor plan allows Flynn and Nelson to be flexible in how they use and arrange the space.

Natural light and large windows also help the space seem open and airy. "We spent a lot of time on the placement of windows," said Kevin. "We wanted to make them meaningful."

The northeast corner of the living room is essentially a wall of windows. (For sustainability reasons, only the lower windows are operable, but that's enough to create plenty of cross-ventilation to keep the house cool in all but the hottest weather, said Kevin.) And the couple decided to forgo upper cabinets in the kitchen and put in windows instead. They also designed exterior "sunshades" that keep the house cool in summer. During the winter months, when the angle of the sun is lower, the shades let in maximum sunlight for a solar-heat gain.

Upstairs, the couple created a master bedroom with a balcony overlooking the kitchen/dining/living area. A passageway from the master bedroom to the master bathroom also provides access to the green roof.

The other three bedrooms are fairly small, but two of them boast ample closets, which the kids have transformed into hideaways. The rooms also have built-in desk alcoves to maximize space. Throughout the house, there's plenty of strategically placed storage "so you can just scoop things up and put them away," said Roxanne.

Even with two pros running the show, there were still bumps in the renovation road. To keep to their budget, they shrunk the dining room by 6 feet. When the framing started going up, the room looked awfully small. "We thought, 'Oh, my gosh, did we mess up?'" Roxanne said. But they quickly adjusted by putting in a narrower dining room table, which fits the space beautifully. They had also contemplated replacing the existing staircase with a more open structure, but decided against the change because it would involve moving load-bearing walls, a costly undertaking.

After more than a year in their remodeled house, Flynn and Nelson say they're happy with the design. Although the house has nearly doubled in size, it uses less energy than it did before the renovation. And even with "extras" such as high-performance windows, super insulation, solar energy systems and a green roof, the remodeling cost them significantly less than building new would have.

Best of all, the couple say, their bigger, greener house is a great place to call home.

Judy Arginteanu is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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