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Kimara and Eric Gustafson thought they'd raise their family in south Minneapolis. That is, they did until they lived in northeast Minneapolis.

"While looking for a new house, we rented a townhome near Nicollet Island and fell in love with the parks, the paths along the river and having our own little downtown close by," Eric said.

So, the couple, who at the time had one son and another on the way, shifted their home search to the nearby neighborhoods aiming to find an efficient, modest-sized house with a yard. But they quickly realized that would probably mean a project. Kimara explained, "Many homes in this area were still owned and occupied by the original owners. That appealed to us, but it also meant that the houses that did come on the market needed updating."

They found their architect, Eric Odor of Sala Architects, before they found their house after seeing one of his projects in the neighborhood (a 2014 American Institute of Architects MN Star Tribune Home of the Month winner) — a stylish and space-efficient transformation of an older home.

And Odor scored another win with this one, called "Torched and Porched," recently named a 2023-2024 Home of the Month winner that recognizes the year's 12 top residential designs. Judges cited design choices that reduced the project's carbon footprint and, at $155 per square foot, executing a fairly affordable project given the caliber.

A good foundation

With Odor on board, Kimara and Eric started to evaluate prospective houses and eventually chose a single-story with a full basement close to their favorite park and school. (The family now included two boys, and Kimara was pregnant with their third.)

The family originally planned to remodel the existing space and add a second story. But as the team surveyed the home, it became clear that building mostly new would be less expensive and more energy-efficient.

Odor recommended keeping the existing foundation and basement. "It's more sustainable, cost-effective and less disruptive to the neighborhood," he said. "By leaving the foundation, we avoided major excavation and minimized heavy truck traffic."

They worked with Better Futures Minnesota, which disassembled the house while recycling, reusing and repurposing whenever possible.

For the new parts of the house, the couple wanted a family-friendly main level with open kitchen, living and dining areas as well as a mudroom off the back door. Odor also wisely suggested one additional space, an "away room," a small den off the living room. The space is bookended by two sets of frosted glass double doors. The doors provide easy flow when open and moments of solace when closed.

"We had enough spaces to be together and Eric [Odor] was spot on knowing that we might also want a quiet place to get away," Eric said.

Upstairs, all of the home's three bedrooms can be found, along with a kids' bathroom, laundry room and a small en suite off Kimara and Eric's room.

Exterior language

Kimara pushed for a black exterior to make the house pop, especially during the dingier winter months.

She researched online and found inspiration in preservation techniques and weather-resistant finishes in parts of the world that had climates similar to Minnesota. Ultimately, Japanese shou sugi ban charred wood from Nakamoto Forestry was used for the inky pitch and durability.

And while the simple story-and-a-half gable architectural style respectfully speaks the language of the neighborhood, the metal roof, blackened vertical siding and clear cedar flat-roofed front and back porches reflect the fresh energy of the young family.

They initially planned to bring more cedar inside with the fireplace and staircase, but COVID delays forced them to consider other options. They ended up with another type of shou sugi ban — a lighter, metal-brushed finish called Pika Pika. Odor steered Kimara and Eric toward white-framed windows to keep the palette clean and let the natural wood tones and black metal accents shine.

The family's right-sized home strategy is evident in the centrally located kitchen, where an island has seating for the whole family, which leaves the dining room table open for the kids' arts and crafts projects. The couple surprised themselves by choosing an induction range over gas and discovered they prefer it. And they love their two dishwasher drawers that offer the flexibility to have one for clean and one for dirty.

Perhaps the most ooh-ah feature of the house is the switchback staircase opposite the kitchen island. Clad in Pika Pika with maple risers, smooth black powder-coated metal railings and wall caps, it's an airy, light chute with pleasing symmetries that brightens the whole house.

"With a small house and an open plan, the staircase takes up a fair amount of square footage, so you want it to be special," Odor said.

The Wiffle dome

Kimara and Eric were happy to retain the existing basement, a big open space that was one of the things they loved about the house when they purchased it.

Turns out, it became the perfect setting for playing Wiffle ball. The Gustafson family, all five of them (the boys are now 10, 7 and 4), are big baseball fans. In fact, one of the things they did to pass the time during the pandemic was watch, rewatch and then watch again the 1987 and 1991 Minnesota Twins World Series wins on YouTube.

"I was 12 when the Twins won in '87, and it was fun to relive both series," Eric said.

They couldn't wait to reenact those games, Wiffle ball style, in their big, indestructible basement. So, everyone (including Odor) began referring to the lower level as "the Metrodome" in honor of the thunderous stadium, its role in those championships and the family's love of the sport.

Odor raised the ceiling height but otherwise kept it basic with small windows, recessed can lights, industrial carpet and wallboard — befitting the rambunctious play zone it is. There is one luxurious touch, however, in the form of a radiant heat floor.

"The Metrodome is nice and toasty all winter," said Kimara. "Sometimes we just lie on the floor."

About this project

A remodel and half-story addition results in a small-scale, modern, energy-efficient home with an open floor plan that now accommodates a young family of five. Disassembled materials were reused and recycled whenever possible. And the exterior black standing seam metal roof and shou sugi ban siding provide a rich backdrop to the two natural cedar porches in the front and back.

Designing firm: SALA Architects.

Project team: Lead architect Eric Odor, AIA; Nate Ehrlich.

Project partners: General contractor Mersch Construction; Align Structural.

Laurie Junker is a Twin Cities-based writer specializing in home design and architecture.