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The first house Janis Skujins designed entirely by himself was his own.

The home, built in the late 1970s, is different from others in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood. It’s a passive solar house; the southern wall is made of windows that let in heat, which is then sucked through an air duct system and pumped into 40 tons of rocks underground that serve as a thermal nest.

Skujins, who began his career as an architect during the environmental movement of the 1970s, lived in the home until Jan. 30, when he died from a heart attack. He was 79.

Skujins was also a prominent member of the Twin Cities’ Latvian community. Throughout his life, he was deeply tied to the cultural traditions of his home country, which his family fled during World War II and Soviet occupation.

His family lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany for about six years before reaching the United States in 1950. They settled in Minneapolis in 1956, where he met other Latvian immigrants who had gone through a similar experience, including his future wife, Guna Kalmite-Skujina.

After graduating with an architecture degree from the University of Minnesota, Skujins went on an extended trip across the globe, starting in Europe and into the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Australia. He worked architecture and other odd jobs along the way in order to save up money to reach the next destination, Kalmite-Skujina said.

“He was the type of person who loved people, and different people, and he was always interested in the world,” she said, collecting mementos and photos from his travels.

When he returned to Minnesota, they married.

Skujins worked as an architect both on his own and for firms. With a focus on being environmentally conscious, he designed churches, apartment buildings and homes.

“The designs were unique. They were unlike any other,” Kalmite-Skujina said. “He didn’t follow what anybody else was doing. He had his own ideas.”

As part of the environmental movement, there was a push for architects to design buildings that were energy efficient and affordable, said his son Janis Paulis Skujins. Many of those ideas failed to become mainstream.

“A lot of it was trying to move toward these very efficient designs,” his son said.

For much of his career he taught architecture and drafting at technical colleges around the Twin Cities. His last job was at the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis before he retired in 2012.

“He did not accept things that were done halfway or not complete,” Kalmite-Skujina said. “He really demanded excellence in all the work that he required from people and himself.”

Skujins was a regular presence at the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Minneapolis-St. Paul, singing in a bass baritone voice in the folklore group and the church choir, which his wife directed.

He regularly spoke in Latvian, shared Latvian stories and sang Latvian folk songs, said his son, who visited the country and their relatives with his father several times. He continued to share that culture with his family, including to his grandchildren as their primary babysitter.

“It was my first language, it was my son’s first language,” Janis Paulis Skujins said. “It was a huge part of him.”

Janis Paulis Skujins first learned about his father’s trip for a class assignment in fifth grade. In 2009, his family reached out to the nonprofit organization StoryCorps. He was able to record the story once more, this time to be archived at the Library of Congress.

In addition to his wife and son, Skujins is survived by daughter Maruta Skujina, son Peteris Skujins and five grandchildren. Funeral services have been held.

Miguel Otárola 612-673-4753