In the bright autumn sun, the St. Croix River sparkles like diamonds through the massive windows of the home of Laurie Walters and Jim Goergen.
The couple can see hot air balloons floating by, sailboats skimming across the water below, eagles soaring overhead. That’s because their steel-clad residence is only 10 feet from the edge of the river bluff.
Their modestly sized, modern home looks uncomplicated.
“The design is a series of simple boxes to minimize the scale on the riverbank,” explained architect Gar Hargens, of Close Associates in Minneapolis.
But getting the 2,100-square-foot home built was anything but simple. It took more than a year of designing, presenting plans, pulling permits and getting approval for variances from the Lake St. Croix Beach City Council and Planning Commission, as well as the Minnesota DNR, before construction could start.
“We had to be patient,” said Goergen. “It was a lot more difficult than building a house on a suburban lot.”
Goergen and Walters had lived on a suburban lot, in Shoreview, to be exact. But they longed for a piece of wooded land on the water. Walters, who grew up in Clinton, Iowa, had spent a lot of time on the Mississippi River as a child. The couple often canoed the St. Croix, where they fell in love with the area.
The cottage had been modified with piecemeal additions over the years, had uneven floors, was poorly insulated and needed endless maintenance and repairs.
Because they wanted to keep the 10-foot setback of the cottage, which was in the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, Goergen and Walters could remodel only within the existing footprint. New construction requires at least a 40-foot setback from the bluff, which would sacrifice the view and force them to cut down many mature pine trees.
But they weren’t sure remodeling was even possible. So, before they bought the land, the couple enlisted Hargens to determine if the basement and foundation of the cottage were structurally sound.
They chose Hargens because they hoped to build a smaller version of a flat-roofed North Oaks home he designed, which was spotlighted in Architecture MN magazine.
“I loved the modern, open design and the lookout on the top,” said Walters of the North Oaks house. “And it really blended with the woods.”
Before any construction could begin, the builder had to salvage the foundation, the partial basement, the floor joists and some framing walls of the old cottage. During demolition, what they were allowed to tear out, such as the old deficient fireplace, was constantly challenged under variances, said Goergen.
“It was very complicated,” he said. “It took a year to get the variances and permits and go through the approval process.”
Despite all the hurdles, the couple said they reaped financial and environmental benefits by building on the old cottage footprint: They saved 10 percent in construction costs, and they saved their beloved pines.
Unlike the mostly traditional neighboring homes, the Goergen-Walters river retreat boasts an edgier, more modern style. It’s also fairly compact.
“We didn’t need a big house and didn’t want to be wasteful,” added Walters.
Recyclable steel covers the roof and exterior walls. The earthtone finishes help the dwelling merge with its wooded setting. Deep overhangs keep interiors shaded in the summer and let in low-angle sunlight in the winter.
Walk up just three stairs, and you experience what Goergen calls the “million-dollar view” through three sliding glass doors. The kitchen and dining area flows into an east-facing screen porch, which was built where the patio of the old summer cottage had been.
Although the approval process was somewhat stressful, Walters and Goergen said they’re thrilled with their bluff-edge home, which was completed in 2013.
The serene setting, magnificent view and sustainable qualities are invaluable to Goergen and Walters, who have computer tech positions and often work from home.
When they’re off the clock, they like to drive their pontoon boat downriver to Hastings or upriver to Stillwater.
“The best thing about living on a river is you can go somewhere,” said Walters.