Joy and David Stoleson were set on building a modest yet one-of-a-kind home on a lot they had bought near La Crosse, Wis.

"We thought it would be really cool to design and build our own house," said David.

The couple were fans of Dwell and Atomic Ranch magazines. "We've always liked midcentury modern style," David said. They agreed they wanted something completely different from the traditional builder homes in their subdivision -- but had no idea what that was.

To help them get started, the Stolesons enlisted architect Kerrik Wessel of Wessel Design in Roseville. They had been impressed with a modernist home he had designed, tailored for its site in St. Croix Falls, Wis.

At their first meeting, Wessel pulled out an architectural history book and showed David and Joy a photo. It was of the Barcelona Pavilion, an icon of architecture's modern movement, designed by Mies van der Rohe as part of the 1929 International Exposition in Spain.

"It's modern, clean and minimal with lots of glass," said Wessel. "I wanted to re-create the same feeling as the pavilion, which has sculptural feature walls that help define the indoor and outdoor spaces."

The Stolesons thought it was genius. "When we saw the photo we got really excited," said David. "It was something we could do."

With the concept now clear, the next challenge was to find the right builder in the La Crosse area. "Everyone thinks you want a big house with expensive finishes," said Joy. "Most had never built a home that was small and modern." They chose Paul Manske of Coulee Region Repair, who had built architect-designed homes. "He got it," said Wessel.

The Stoleson home is a composition of three detached buildings -- the main house, a carport and a studio for David, who works from home as a software engineer.

"I wanted a physical and mental separation when I go to work," said David. "It's only 20 steps from the house, and an easy commute in the winter."

The grouping of the three detached buildings, which have low flat roofs like the pavilion, also create interesting outdoor areas, said Wessel. Near the front entrance is a courtyard, and behind the home is a concrete and rock patio that can be accessed from both the studio and living room.

Carport, not garage

The Stolesons weren't fans of massive protruding garages, the primary focus of many suburban homes. So they opted for a 1950s-style open carport with built-in storage located at the far side of the home. The sidewalk guides visitors to the front door, which is hidden from view to create a sense of mystery, said Wessel.

"It's not so obvious -- and that makes it more custom and interesting," he said. Wide overhangs are like umbrellas blocking the rain and snow at the front entrance and for David's walk to the studio.

But what really makes the home stand out is the exterior's graphic design quality. The couple liked vibrant 1960s colors, so Wessel juxtaposed glass panels, composed of turquoise translucent honeycomb inserts called Panelites, fiberboard painted yellow-green and shiny metal trim.

"We're glad we did the Panelite instead of just glass," said Joy. "It's a design element that's beautiful and creates a visual effect. It was worth the extra cost."

They also repeated the eye-popping green on a large concrete block wall that connects the carport to the home. "Some of the neighbors think the color of the wall is off-putting," said Joy. "But others have told us that we have a really cool house."

Just enough space

The size of the one-level home, shaped like a long rambler, was a top consideration for the Stoleson family, which includes daughter Julia. Their last home was a big early-1900s farmhouse with chopped-up small rooms. "We didn't want to build more than we needed," said David. "Every room had to be useful."

Wessel designed the 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom dwelling with open flowing spaces. The few doors are pocket doors to maximize every foot.

"To make a smaller house feel bigger, keep the spaces open and have lots of glass to see outdoors. It expands the inside spaces," Wessel said. He put in floor-to-ceiling expanses of glass to give the Stolesons' views of the tree-filled valley below.

The centerpiece of the main room, which houses the living room, kitchen and dining room, is a midcentury modern-style concrete-block fireplace painted -- what else -- yellow-green.

Cozy with a view

"My favorite place is in front of the fireplace in the winter," David said. "I can see the woods and snow in every direction."

Some of today's popular oversized center islands could fit in the Stolemans' economically sized kitchen. The breakfast bar is covered with translucent white laminate and surrounded by walnut cabinets accented with turquoise panels for pops of color. "We wanted everything to be within reach," said Joy. "But not feel too cramped."

With her husband's minimalist sensibility, Joy wasn't sure where she would display her antiques, including her mother's collection of Depression glass. "I was worried that with these two guys involved, there wouldn't be anywhere to put my stuff," she said.

So Wessel designed floor-to-ceiling shelves on the hallway wall for her collections. He also included a small basement under the studio for storage, as well as for shelter during storms.

The main floor is all tied together by sealed gray concrete floors with radiant in-floor heat, which are warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

"It's just amazing. We're never cold," said Joy. "It's not like the drafty old house we used to live in."

The energy-saving heated floors, SIPs (structured insulated panel) and passive solar design are some of the lower-cost green elements that Wessel integrated into the home.

But the compact size is hands down its most eco-friendly characteristic -- and fits the home's modern architectural style.

"Like the Stoleson house, the Barcelona Pavilion is a small building," said Wessel. "Both are small and efficient, but elegant."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619