When Minneapolis' East Harriet neighborhood was being developed in the early 1900s, several small cabins were relocated to compact urban lots.

Matt and Ines Davis lived in one and were content with their 1,100-square-foot, 1 ½-story home and its two bedrooms, two bathrooms and partially finished basement. But with two young children, the family had a growing need for more space. And while previous owners had added onto the house over the years, it was piecemeal.

"We didn't want to move, because we really liked the neighborhood," Matt said of the home he purchased almost 20 years ago. So, they decided to stay and remodel.

They didn't have to look far to find someone to take on the job, which they put in the hands of their neighbor and architect friend, Locus Architecture co-founder Paul Neseth. Matt, the owner of a landscape design and build company, asked to serve as the general contractor.

In most cases, Neseth would have said no.

"Usually when someone says, 'I'd like to help you,' you know how that conversation is going to go with the contractor, who typically says it's going to cost more because it's going to slow down the process and make it more difficult," said Neseth.

But "Matt had experience doing construction projects because of his business. And he's built things with his own hands. So he kind of knew what he was doing."

In the end, the project was a success in terms of design and friendship. The project, named Parkway Update, was a 2022-2023 Home of the Month winner, a partnership of the Star Tribune and American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minnesota that recognizes top residential design. Judges lauded the project's radical transformation and its scale.

"An example of innovative and beautiful design that is available to even clients constrained by smaller-scale projects in dense city residential neighborhoods," wrote one of the judges.

In sync

The compact lot, the neighborhood and the family's love for entertaining drove the design. It began in the front yard, with a stone pathway, garden and trellised outdoor seating area.

"There's the parkway out front. We have the same thing at our place and we spend a lot of time out there and it's always been fun for us to connect to the neighborhood," Neseth said. "The trellis kind of gives a little bit more enclosure while you're sitting out front."

Because the foundation of the house was in rough shape and the basement ceiling and beams were low, a heavy renovation was required.

"Matt wanted to save the front [yard] and that allowed him to save some money on the connections for water and sewer. It also meant that we didn't have to excavate quite as much in the front," Neseth said.

The plan was to keep the home's size about the same, roughly 1,000 square feet on each floor. But by raising the ceilings and finishing the lower level, the amount of usable space and how the house functioned would improve tremendously.

Opening sightlines

On the main level, "walls of windows" along the front and back serve to frame the landscape. A new open floor plan offers clear sightlines through the length of the house and optimizes the natural light.

"Connection to the outdoors can really kind of help relieve the confinement of that space. In order to make spaces feel open and larger than they are, we let the light and the views and those kinds of things carry the aesthetic as much as possible," Neseth said. "The south side, having greater access to sun and light, is where you want to spend a lot of your time, so that was left really open from the front to the back," and where the main living spaces were located.

Neighboring houses sit close together, so the Locus Architecture team also designed with restraint. A smaller set of windows sits high above the living room fireplace for privacy. The north side of the house, where the stairwell and a bathroom are located, functions as the "working part" of the home with fewer windows.

Natural elements were important to Matt and Ines, who were heavily involved in style decisions. They opted for cedar siding along with Hardie fiber cement siding on the exterior and walnut flooring throughout the interior. While giving the house a natural feel, "the light wood makes the rooms feel larger than they are," Neseth said.

The Davises say they are using every inch of their house — now with four bedrooms, four bathrooms and 3,000 square feet. Matt admires all the design details as well as references to the past, such as old beams that were repurposed as the fireplace mantel.

"We're super happy with how it turned out," he said. "If we were to do it again, I would take the same design."

Party in the back

As a landscape designer, the outdoor spaces were just as important as the house to Matt.

"We could have gone a lot bigger with the house and pushed it back further with a three-story facade," Matt said. "But since it was a walkout we wanted some relief in the back and a deck on top."

The trellised deck has stairs that lead to the well-landscaped backyard. Matt embraced the site's existing sandy topography, and installed rain gardens in both the front and back of the house.

"There's not a lot of water that goes off the site," he said. "All of the water from this house goes deep down into the ground to recharge."

There are various seating and hang-out areas for both intimate and large gatherings and a mix of open-air and covered spaces, including a rainproof shed beneath the deck that moonlights as an outdoor bar. Neseth designed the new free-standing garage with double doors connecting to the backyard.

"You can open the doors up and it becomes part of the entertainment space," Neseth said.

That's a good thing, because the Davis family likes to host gatherings, snow or shine. In December, they hosted their annual Weihnachtsmarkt fest in the spirit of outdoor winter markets in Germany, where Ines is from. They set up tents and had food and drink stations serving pretzels, brats and mulled wine.

It's an event their friends and neighbors, including Neseth, have come to enjoy. The get-togethers were always fun before, and now made even more meaningful when looking back on the project.

"It was a great life experience and I got to spend more time with a friend," Neseth said. "I found it really, really enjoyable."

About this project

Located on a tight urban lot in a dense residential neighborhood, a major remodel transforms a Minneapolis parkway home by embracing the landscape.

Designing firm: Locus Architecture.

Project team: Paul Neseth, AIA; Wynne Yelland, AIA; Mariah Major.

Project partners: Matt Davis, general contractor; Shaw Design Associates landscaping; Derek Phillips, Safe Haven structural engineering.