What happens when an award-winning architect remodels his or her own home?
In the case of David O'Brien Wagner's bungalow in St. Paul's Crocus Hill, the result is a casually sophisticated home that reflects his and wife Nancy O'Brien Wagner's lifestyle and taste. It's special, as you'd expect from an architect, but also practical and designed for family life.
Inspiration for the project — called Blue Note and named a 2022-2023 Home of the Month winner, a partnership between the Star Tribune and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minnesota recognizing top residential designs — came from a variety of influences.
Sources include David's Pacific Northwest upbringing, projects he's done for clients and the work of Marcel Breuer, a modernist architect best known for his brawny, concrete buildings, including the Whitney Museum in Manhattan and, closer to home, St John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. "Breuer also did a ton of residential work," said David, adding that he appreciates how Breuer used wood and other natural materials to create warm modern homes.
But David was also inspired by his family's needs and a growing awareness of their relatively short time left living under the same roof — especially with their oldest now a senior in high school.
"We realized that Nolan would be going off to college soon and wanted to create a nice space for our family to spend time together," David said.
'Diamond in the rough'
The Wagners bought the house 14 years ago when Nancy was nine months pregnant with their youngest child. The story-and-a-half bungalow was on an oversized lot near where Nancy grew up. It wasn't the prettiest house on the block — David called it a "diamond in the rough" and "the dog on the street." But in his mind, that had advantages.
"As an architect, I don't want to blow up a beautiful house just to make it mine, but I didn't feel bad with this one," David said.
The Wagners' first order of business was expanding the second floor to add bedrooms and bathrooms to accommodate their family of five (including daughters Franny and Zoe), which they did shortly after moving in. At that time, they also relocated the main floor staircase off to the side to open the center of the house for better light and traffic flow.
Taking down walls, revealing detail
Ten years later, in 2019, they addressed the first floor, reworking the back of the house by converting a small kitchen, bedroom and bath into a combined kitchen/family room and powder room.
This is where visitors might begin to discern that an architect lives here.
One clue is the exposed steel beam and column, which was added for support when a load-bearing wall was removed. Painted white, it's a modern industrial element that pleasingly echoes the traditional box-beam ceiling in the front of the house.
The doorways into the space are framed with Douglas fir — a wood species native to Washington state, where David grew up. More Douglas fir shows up in the bookcases, encases the window seat, wraps the kitchen cabinets and trims the windows.
And then there's this next-level detail: Cabinets and trim have a quarter-inch gap, what architects refer to as a reveal. David had used the technique in client projects but never for himself.
"They float a little bit. It's a crisp, contemporary look that takes a lot of precision and a really good woodworker," he said.
In company with these erudite finishes are hallmarks of family life — comfy cushions, books, board games, musical instruments and a hodgepodge of magnets on the exposed steel beam.
Going for the horizontal
David chose whitewashed Douglas fir tongue-and-groove paneling on one wall in the family room to add softness and texture while concealing a flush door to the powder room. The paneling was also a way to add horizontality to a space dominated by vertical lines in doorways, cabinets and appliances.
"I think there's something grounding about nice broad horizontal lines," said David, noting that the long midcentury-esque floating cabinet in the kitchen is a nod to some of Breuer's work.
The lighter tones in the paneling, floor, backsplash and cabinets also help bounce daylight and brighten the north-facing room.
Even though David is the architect in the family, Nancy was involved at every stage of the project. Her imprint is also in the finished space — in splashes of blue and the Carrara marble top on the island — a reminder of the kitchen table from her childhood home.
"There's something so satisfying about rolling out your first Thanksgiving pie on a table with the same surface as the one you had as a kid," Nancy said.
Goodbye, ice bowl
Before remodeling, Nancy said, the cat's water bowl near the back door would often freeze, so another critical goal was improving the home's energy efficiency. To that end, they installed triple-pane windows and doors and chose spray foam insulation.
Additional green choices include LED lighting, low-VOC paints, in-floor radiant heat and an electric stove and cooktop.
David designed a screened-in porch that extends from the family room via double doors to better enjoy their big backyard and watch the antics of the family's chickens. The porch is framed in Douglas fir with a stained plywood ceiling. David and Nancy did most of the finishing themselves, including the decking, screens and staining.
In a stroke of good timing, the project was finished at the start of the pandemic. The family was able to enjoy the beautiful and useful space throughout the work- and school-from-home period.
David says they were also grateful for the "transformative" visual and physical connection to the outdoors, especially the screened-in porch, which adds livable space during warmer months. Then and now, his design proved itself.
"I had a lot to draw from, but I tried to take what I know and make it about my family, our needs and our house and yard," he said.
About this project
A top-to-bottom remodel and addition of a 1910 St. Paul bungalow weaves in architectural elements while catering to the family's needs. Original charm was maintained while adding modern design elements.
Project size: Less than 1,000 square feet.
Designing firm: SALA Architects.
Project team: David O'Brien Wagner, AIA.
Carpentry: Jon Thorson, Thorson Custom Carpentry; Showcase Carpentry; Dave Henry, Fineline Cabinets.
Laurie Junker is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer specializing in home design and architecture.