The setup sounds primed for comedy.
When St. Paul couple Albertine Beard and Niladri Aichbhaumik started talking about building a dream house, their ideas bounded in opposite directions like squirrels in a bag.
"His vision is everything open — a fishbowl with no walls and lots of windows," Beard said, referencing her husband. "That's my version of hell. I want to live in a cave with lots of partitions where no one can see me."
The pair tapped accomplished architect Eric Odor of SALA Architects to design the house. And it was to be on the same Mississippi River bluff lot where their prior home stood.
Odor, too, brought his own comic twist to planning for the infill house.
"I don't like people all that much," Odor said, half in jest. "My patience is short. I do this [client-focused] work, but I just want to create things and sell them."
After listening keenly to Beard and Aichbhaumik, Odor designed River Roost, a sleek, modern structure with lots of windows to take advantage of the breathtaking views of the Mississippi. But because of its design and layout, the 4,800-square-foot house with five bedrooms and five baths also offers lots of privacy, a result that is anything but laughable.
"Eric is a magician," Beard said. "I thought we'd be compromising — that there'd be no possible way he could make both of us happy. But he has."
The home, in an area of the Highland Park neighborhood that is highly trafficked by runners, cyclists and pedestrians, is a winner of AIA's Home of the Month competition.
It also has won the affections of the Beard-Aichbhaumik household.
"We watched a lot of HGTV trying to make these decisions," Aichbhaumik said. "And Eric made some decisions for us. We learned to trust him."
Beard and Aichbhaumik, physicians who met while both were doing their residencies in St. Louis, did not set out to build a house. The 1951 rambler that they bought in 2007, when they took jobs about 2 miles away in opposite directions, had served the family well.
But then Beard's mother, a retired accounting professor, made plain what was becoming apparent as their family grew. With three kids, now ages 10, 8 and 5, the family was already tripping over one another, with the kids' toys taking up a growing share of their living space.
"My mom said, 'Your children are getting bigger, and you'll have five adults in this house in the not too distant feature,'" Beard recalled.
At first, they considered expanding the rambler and adding a second story. But that was not feasible, ecologically or financially. They also did not want to leave the neighborhood, which they describe in superlative terms. And, importantly, they wanted to be neighborly, not create, as Aichbhaumik said, "a monstrosity."
That's when they called in Odor and his team, which includes design henchman Ben Dose. The couple sent their dreams up to the clouds. Odor sought to give them concrete form, exploring different plans before settling on one that uses three cedar "boxes" to modulate the overall space.
"We did this little dance for a while, trying to satisfy both of their dreams and desires," Odor said. "I ended up doing it by parking these three wooden boxes of different usefulness for them so if you were in one place, you're completely blocked off — like the kitchen from the living room. And in another place, you had a peek."
Oh, yes, River Roost also could be called the peek-a-boo house. If you leave one area and start moving along, other arenas unveil themselves.
Odor likes to work with stone, steel and wood — "fundamental materials that bring out the best in each other," he said. "I like to use those in their natural states as much as possible."
The exterior of River Roost is clad in cement board, cedar and stone. The stairway is clad in wood, as is the mudroom and the pantry.
"One thing I've always been turned off by modern architecture is when it feels cold and sterile," Beard said. "That was definitely a concern for me. I've always liked angular but not cold or hard."
"I like clean, straight lines — things organized," Aichbhaumik said. "The neat and tidy and organized ethos really appealed to me."
The use of wood helped the marriage of modern and warm.
"The wood softens everything," Beard said. "It's like being enveloped in nature all the time."
Beard likens her home to being in a forest. You cannot see everything, just what's in front of you.
Open without being exposed
Odor had the challenge of making the house feel open without the family being exposed. His solution was as simple as it was elegant. The street-facing front of the house has a lot of overhangs.
The house is open to the backyard, which feels like a courtyard hugging its occupants. That especially suits Beard.
"From the street, I wanted to be invisible," Beard said. "But I'm a gardener, and I always want to be outside."
Aichbhaumik likes to be outside but not totally outside. He's an allergist, which, in an ironic twist, mosquitos and blackflies must know. They like to bite him. A screened-in porch takes care of that.
And Beard likes to stargaze, which she does from an upper deck.
The couple think of their home as a treehouse and are surprised by the level of privacy and the amount of light they have.
"Everything feels like it's in nature," Beard said. "We never have to turn on a light because it's always natural light from every corner. And despite the fact that it has all of Nil's windows, I don't feel exposed."
Odor drew on nautical themes when he designed the western-facing upstairs where the owners' suite and their daughters' bedrooms are located. The bedrooms and their bay windows are "modeled after river cruises, so there are three first-class berths for the kids with wonderful bay windows. Then there's the suite that Mom and Dad live in that has a deck out to the roof."
The roof is flat and solar-ready. There also are three lower green roofs lined with beds of sedum. Sustainability was an important design element for the parties, and the house is made of recycled and recyclable materials.
The basement, where the three daughters like to spend most of their time, is a riot of toys and colors. That's where trapeze and bungee ropes are suspended from the ceiling, inviting play.
"When I first met the girls, they were constantly in motion," Odor said. "The colors and objects were all alluded to" by their kinetic energy.
With other clients, Odor noted, his work sometimes tips from architecture into marriage counseling.
"That's why I have both parties sign the contract and in there it says I can take direction from either party," Odor said. "That takes a little bit of the therapy out of it — the 'he-said/she-said' or 'he-said/he-said.'"
"But Nil and Albertine were terribly imaginative and terribly open," Odor continued. "Without people, you do the same old stuff. But with the inspiration of people, you grow and evolve."
Aichbhaumik and Beard said that that respect is mutual.
"Our wings get to unfold into this space," Beard said. "Through all of the craziness [of the pandemic] that was happening around us, we could come back home and let our wings flap out and relax in this natural setting."
About this project:
What: Perched on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the River Roost home used a combination of three cedar "boxes" to modulate the overall space to maximize on privacy and exposure to the outdoors.
Architect: Eric Odor, AIA, with Ben Dose of SALA Architects.
Contractor: Stephen Roche with Kevin Kish of Showcase Renovations.
Structural: Christian Soltermann, P.E., of Align Structural.