For architect Michael Roehr and his family, one of the best things about living in Mexico was their home's upper-level patio.

They were on an 18-month sabbatical in the town of San Miguel de Allande, where they spent most of their days on the roof, feeling the warm breezes and watching the clouds roll in over the foothills.

"We lived outdoors and felt a strong connection to the sky," said his wife, Elisa Bernick, who was writing a book at the time. "When we came back to Minnesota and our dark little house, the sky felt very far away."

Roehr and Bernick had moved into "that dark little house" in 1986 to help care for Bernick's elderly grandfather. When he passed away, they bought the 1926 bungalow in St. Paul's Macalaster-Groveland neighborhood. And although they had updated it over the years, it was still a one-story, two-bedroom stucco home with less than 1,000 square feet of space.

Their 2002 trip to Mexico inspired them to look for a bigger house that would allow their children, Asher and Cleome, to have their own bedrooms. They found plenty of roomy residences in their neighborhood, but they all needed work.

So instead of buying a different house, they decided to remodel their own. Roehr was set to launch an architecture firm with his partner Chris Schmitt and the project would help promote their business.

"Our plan was to establish the firm as a presence in modern residential architecture," said Roehr, co-owner of RoehrSchmitt Architecture in Minneapolis. "My home would demonstrate that it was doable in an urban area."

To give the cave-like bungalow the open-air feeling the family wanted, Roehr turned the house upside-down.

Instead of just redoing the bungalow, he added a 1,000-square-foot addition on top of the original home and moved the living spaces up there. With its band of clerestories and a massive picture window, the sunlit addition is a Minnesota version of rooftop living. The new space, which has 12-foot ceilings, includes a living room, dining room, kitchen, powder room and office all in an open floor plan that maximizes natural light, encourages airflow and boasts treetop views.

"You can see the morning sun, the moon at night and the weather as it changes," Roehr said.

On the main floor, Roehr knocked down walls, reconfigured rooms and added 300 square feet to create a new master bedroom, bathroom and mudroom. The couple's bedroom, which was the bungalow's old living room, is warmed by a vintage fireplace. Roehr also recycled the infrastructure of the existing bungalow, which is encased within the home's new steel-and-wood shell.

Modern appeal

Roehr's affinity for the simplicity and clarity of modern architecture is visible in the renovation's streamlined interior and back-to-basics design. He also used economical, energy-efficient and sustainable materials in the home's interior and exterior. All the new rooms have in-floor radiant heat, the bathrooms are outfitted with water-saving dual-flush toilets and the picture windows are made of highly insulated materials, with lower screened panels that can be angled open for ventilation.

Even the ceiling, which is composed of corrugated metal decking with steel trusses, is economical because it functions as the roof structure as well as the finished ceiling. "It also has a visually appealing texture," Roehr said.

With its boxy shape and exterior zinc siding, the Roehr residence stands out in the neighborhood of mostly traditional style homes. "My friends call it the big metal box house," Asher said.

Roehr installed that eye-catching zinc siding. In fact, Roehr, an amateur carpenter, completed most of the finishing work to keep the $225,000 renovation within the couple's budget.

Because Roehr did much of the work himself, the family endured dust, disruption and unfinished projects for four years. But the renovation gave them the connection to the sky that they'd been seeking.

"This new house -- with all the light -- gives me a lot more energy and makes me feel more optimistic," said Bernick. "We are a less grumpy family than in the old house."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619