Like many couples facing retirement, Sue Light and Boyd Ratchye were mulling different housing options for the years ahead.
"A lot of our friends were talking about moving to condos or apartments," Light said, "but we liked where we were."
That was their home of 26 years, a walkout rambler set on a small, tranquil lake in Mendota Heights. While their 1979 house felt outdated and they were tired of their cramped kitchen, they knew the setting — with lake views and nature all around them — would be hard to beat.
"We both like nature," said Ratchye. "We would live outdoors if we could."
Plus Light, a Master Gardener, wasn't ready to give up digging in the dirt.
"I couldn't imagine being in an apartment or condo and not having space to garden," she said.
Fortunately, their house was set on a big enough piece of land that they could build another house and still be on the lake.
To gather ideas, they attended the Homes by Architects Tour and found two houses they liked — both designed by Mark Larson, Rehkamp Larson Architects. So the couple contacted Larson and hired him to design a new house on the site adjacent to their existing house.
But Light and Ratchye realized that they still had reservations about moving at all.
"We really liked the view of the lake we had," said Light. Since they had painstakingly cleared the invasive buckthorn and replaced it with native plants, they didn't want to start over with landscaping.
"What we had was so special," Light said. "We wanted to change things so we could age in place here."
They wondered if they could they "re-imagine" their rambler to incorporate what they were seeking. Larson was confident they could — and do it within the existing footprint.
"They had all the square footage they needed, but in the wrong places," said Larson. "We had to think creatively about organizing it. In an existing footprint, it's all about geometry and finessing what's there."
Going through the design process for the new house that they decided not to build actually helped inform the redesign of their existing home, Larson noted.
"Having designed a home from scratch, we realized what they were after and applied the same goals," he said.
The main floor — about 1,500 square feet — was reworked to create a modern open floor plan that made the most of natural light and lake views.
The design transformed their kitchen, which Ratchye described as "mazelike." It had a peninsula that was "in the way of everybody, and cabinets hanging from the ceiling," he said. "It didn't work. It was like it was designed by a kitchen sadist."
The revamped kitchen is in the same location but is nearly twice as large and open to the family room, thanks to removal of a wall. There's space for a large center island, and bigger, better views of the lake. Upper cabinets on the lake side of the kitchen were removed and replaced with windows and floating shelves.
"I was apprehensive about losing cabinets," said Light, "but the shelves are great."
The kitchen also incorporates aging-in-place features, such as pullout storage drawers that don't require kneeling. Widened doorways and integrated red oak flooring throughout the home also make it more livable long term.
"The floors were uneven before," said Light, with multiple materials, including Mexican tiles in the entry. "It was hard to imagine [using] a walker. Now everything is a smooth transition."
Larson and design associate Ryan Bicek creatively repurposed other existing spaces.
The original rambler had two living rooms, the smaller of which was rarely used, as well as a small dining room that wasn't adjacent to the kitchen. The smaller living room became the dining room, and the old dining room became a multifunctional study/guest room.
The original laundry room, which was at the opposite end of the house from the master bedroom, was converted into a powder room and mudroom. A new laundry room was located in what had been a small master closet, while a guest bath across from the master bedroom became a walk-in closet.
"It's a much better use of space," said Light.
Light and bright
The couple's front entry also got a dramatic transformation. The stairway to the lower level was flipped 180 degrees, creating a more inviting entrance, as well as space for two closets that flank a built-in bench just inside the front door.
The front doorway was widened to 4 feet, and fitted with a door with four panes of glass, flooding the entry with light.
"Before, it was very dark," said Light.
The glass door has the added benefit of giving them a view of their magnolia, the first tree to flower every spring. "The tree has been there 25 years, but now we can see it," she said.
Other enhancements include built-in bookcases and shelving in the family room to accommodate their expanding library. (Light collects gardening books and cookbooks, while Ratchye, a docent at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, acquires art books.)
"We had stand-alone bookcases before, and we kept adding to them," said Light. "The new cabinets cleaned all that up."
The couple's three-season porch, which overlooks the lake, didn't need much improvement.
"The porch is our 'cabin' Up North," said Ratchye. But the door between it and the adjacent family room was moved to allow for better furniture placement.
Even the home's exterior got a face-lift. There's now a covered portico, which provides a bit of shelter, new steps and columns, all designed to complement the bluestone patio just in front of it.
"It's very welcoming," said Ratchye.
The exterior, formerly a rusty red, is now a deep grayish-brown.
"It settles into the landscape and makes it a little more modern," said Larson. A new garage door, made of glass and aluminum, lets in light and hints at the modernized interior.
Longing for nature
During the 5½ months of construction, Light and Ratchye moved to a townhouse in Eagan. The experience convinced them that they didn't want to be townhouse dwellers. They missed the sound of loons calling, and the sight of eagles and ducks.
"It made us look forward to being back here," said Light.
Life in their re-imagined rambler is everything they hoped it would be.
"It's more fun to cook," Light said. "When we have people over, I don't have to shoo them out of the way of the appliances."
Ratchye appreciates having more and better places to hang their artwork.
"Putting pieces of art in new settings transforms them — they look different," he said. "That's been one of the big enjoyable things."
Even more important, he now has the sense of peace and calm he was seeking in a home.
"I wanted a sanctuary," he said. "He [Larson] really gave us that. It's integrated throughout and very calming, with a wonderful sense of nature."
The soft gray and white palette focuses the attention on the outdoors, Larson said. But there are a few pops of bold color, such as the russet-red tile backsplash in the kitchen and the vibrant green powder room.
"There's also a calmness about the architecture," he said. "We didn't try to change everything."
Now the home lives up to its peaceful, lakeside setting, as one of their recent dinner guests noted.
"He said he had always liked our location," said Ratchye, "and it finally has the home it deserves."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784 @Stribkimpalmer
STAR TRIBUNE/AIA HOME OF THE MONTH
Home of the Month appears in the Homes section every month. The program, a partnership between the Star Tribune and the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects, features architect-designed homes selected by a jury of experts. The homes represent a range of prices, styles and locations.