Minnesota AIA home of the month

Life in the suburbs often means a house with a big deck overlooking a spacious back yard. Meanwhile, the front of the house is often where you find formal rooms that are rarely used, the garage and an entryway barely large enough for a folding chair.

But what do you do when a noisy and unattractive county highway passes through your back yard?

That's the problem Minneapolis architect Dan Nepp faced when he sat down to design a house for a custom home builder on a pie-shaped lot in a small Chanhassen subdivision.

His solution? Nepp did something that's rarely done in the subburbs, he designed a house that turns its back on the back yard. And because the design was commissioned with resale in mind, doing it on a tight budget was important, too.

"The goal was to create a simple, memorable image, but keep the house as simple as possible," said Nepp of TEA2 Architects.

Unlike most custom homes, this one was designed more for the lot than for a specific client, so the builder, Jack Carter of John Thomas Custom Homes, gave Nepp complete artistic control over the design.

Nepp started by examining the lot, which is on a small cul-de-sac with an island of trees and shrubs in the middle, to determine how best to site the house.

Because the back yard faced the road and the noise that goes with it, he knew that he would have to position the most-used rooms toward the front and side of the house, toward the deepest part of the lot.

His goal was to design a house that would complement, not overwhelm, the narrow site; downplay the presence of the garage and create an open floor plan filled with light from big windows on the two sides facing away from the road.

Nepp took cues from the great shingle-style houses of the East Coast, mostly summer houses clad with wood shakes because they were more economical than milled lumber. He calls the house "a take on a shingle-style cottage."

The 1 1/2-story house is clad with wood shakes that are easy to find and to install, and the windows have wood dividers that make it look like a cozy English cottage.

For the shape of the house, Nepp was inspired by a famous shingle-style residence: the house where Frank Lloyd Wright launched his career and developed his world-famous Prairie Style of architecture.

Located in a quiet neighborhood in Oak Park, Ill., the Wright House and Studio is famous for a prominent triangular-shaped gable that floats above a strong horizontal stone terrace.

Nepp combined those same friendly shapes on this suburban cul-de-sac and attached a two-car garage along the side that's set back a comfortable distance from the front of the house.

The owner's suite is on the second floor behind that broad gable, where it gets views over the cul-de-sac through a large bank of windows. More important, the bedroom is as far as possible from the road noise. Two bedrooms are above the garage, but there's a laundry room and study area that provides a buffer between the sleeping rooms and the noisier rear of the house

On the first floor, a wide stone terrace opens onto the front entry, dining room and kitchen.

Part of that terrace is recessed into the house, so that when you're in the house you feel sheltered and safe, but still have deep views over the neighborhood. Architects call that concept "prospect and refuge," the feeling that you have command over your environment, but still feel secure.

That front terrace, separated from the front yard by a low stone wall, partially wraps around the side of the house that faces the deepest part of the lot and is opposite the side facing the road. Here, another terrace opens into the living room.

To block noise, Nepp positioned utilitarian spaces on the side of the house nearest the highway: the attached garage, a stairway and a bathroom. And rooms facing the back yard have no windows in places that might let in noise. In the living room, for example, there are windows on two sides facing away from the highway, while the opposite wall, the one nearest the road, houses a fireplace and built-in cabinets.

"It is what it is when you're on a road," said home builder Carter. "The solution to overcoming the problem is good design."

All of the main-floor rooms, including the living room, dining room and kitchen, are open to one another, but are defined by columns, ceiling height and flooring. The open plan lets light flow easily from one room to the next regardless of the angle of the sun (remember that there are no windows on the west side), making the house feel bigger.

"These are layered spaces," Nepp said. "But they have their own separate spaces, so you can see lots of light all day long."

Carter wanted to keep the construction budget at $225 to $250 per square foot, not including architectural fees and the lot price, so Nepp kept the details simple. He swapped expensive trim work and crown moldings with hand-plastered walls that terminate directly into window and door frames.

That simplicity makes the house feel "warm and inviting and informal," Nepp said. "Moldings can get to the point where you can stiffen up a house."

Carter, who moved into the house with his family, has now outgrown it and is ready to move on to his next project.

"We love it," Carter said. "We hate the county road, but we love the house."

Jim Buchta - 612-673-7376


Architect: Dan Nepp, TEA2 Architects, Minneapolis.

Client/contractor: Jack Carter of John Thomas Custom Homes.

Size: 2,500 finished square feet with 1,000 square feet in the basement and a finished, heated two-car garage.

Design surprise: The two-car garage has in-floor heat and is completely finished, so that during the winter kids have a place to ride their bikes.

Construction budget (in 2007 dollars): $225 to $250 per square foot.


Join us for a celebration of the fifth anniversary of Home of the Month by attending "Good Design Makes a Difference" from 5:30 to 7 p.m. March 21 at International Market Square in Minneapolis.

The event, co-sponsored by the AIA Minnesota, includes book signings, a review of Home of the Month entries and a discussion by leading architects, including Duo Dickinson, AIA, highly acclaimed Connecticut architect and author of -"The House You Build: Making Real-World Choices to Get the Home You Want."

Purchase tickets for $12 (including refreshments) online at or call 612-338-6763.

Watch for Home of the Month the first Saturday of every month. The program is a partnership between the Star Tribune and the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The 12 architect-designed houses were selected by a jury of experts; the houses represent a range of price levels, styles and locations.

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