They're showing up on residential blocks all over the Twin Cities. Unadorned, boxy homes right out of Dwell magazine nestle among neighborhoods brimming with Tudors, ramblers and Cape Cods, particularly as baby boomers seek to update their places with the idea of aging in place.
Architects report increased requests for flat-roofed homes or nontraditional exteriors in urban enclaves around the Twin Cities as well as in surrounding suburbs.
While neighborhood activists and city officials have little say — legally — on design decisions, one person's desire to be the cool kid on the block may strike another as a neighborhood's sore thumb. Problems get compounded when the structures steal sunlight or dwarf surrounding homes.
Conscientious homeowners find themselves in a delicate dance with neighbors and sometimes running a gantlet with housing officials who may be unfamiliar with certain roof styles or siding materials. In these situations, a bit of diplomacy goes a long way.
When architect Jackie Millea decided to gut her 1928 stucco home in Minneapolis and update it with a sleek glass-and-steel modern addition, she talked to her neighbors. A lot.
"Not necessarily to ask their permission," Millea said, "but if they'd had a strong reaction to it, I might have given it another thought."
Millea, founding partner of Shelter Architecture in Minneapolis, says it's possible to create a modern home that is "gentle and kind" to the neighborhood while still saying, "Hey, I'm a little different from these houses around here."
The front of her home in the Windom neighborhood remained deliberately subtle, right down to the paint she selected to blend with surrounding 1920s houses. In the back, however, Millea pulled out the stops, opening up the space with a two-story glass stair tower and master bedroom suite with a screened-in porch.
Before construction, she built a 3-D model of her intentions to help neighbors visualize the scale. In the end, people seemed pleased, said Millea, who completed the first phase in 2008 and wrapped up the second phase in recent weeks.
"They saw our commitment to the neighborhood with our improvements, vs. 'Oh, my gosh, I can't believe you're building that here.' "
That mind-set of merging a traditional home with contemporary lines and materials appealed to first-time home buyers Laura Rubenstein and her husband, Jeff Weiss, clients of Shelter Architecture. The couple bought a one-story 1916 bungalow in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood, intending to keep 60 percent of the existing structure and add a second level with a shed roof, metal siding and oversized windows.
In a neighborhood dominated by century-old homes with gabled roofs, dormer windows and covered porches, "fitting in" wasn't their top priority, Weiss said, "but we liked the idea that it was possible. And we loved the curb appeal of the house we bought."
The couple made a point of meeting their neighbors, because they didn't plan to move in until after construction. They wrote a letter outlining their plans, providing e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Weiss baked ginger snap cookies.
"I wasn't worried about being conspicuous," said Rubenstein, who grew up in a modern home in the Bauhaus style of German architect Walter Gropius, one of the pioneers of modern design. "We picked something that was in an appropriate scale with the neighborhood."
But what started as a renovation took a hard turn one day when Rubenstein drove by and found a hole in the ground.
The walls were too weak to save, and demolishing the one-story fixer-upper meant that Weiss and Rubenstein would do a complete rebuild, which set in motion a whole new set of building regulations with the city.
The couple stuck with their original plans to stay within the footprint of the former bungalow, despite the need to seek variances for structures that had been grandfathered in with the old place.
"The rules are all written for traditional houses," Rubenstein said. "Anytime we needed to do something that was not the norm, it was more challenging."
Several neighbors protested the variances. A next-door neighbor felt the two-story structure blocked too much of her light; another was adamant about preserving the character of the neighborhood. Compromise was the key word: The couple lost a battle on roof height, but won some others.
"I understand where they're coming from," Rubenstein said. "For the most part everyone has been receptive and kind."
Still, Weiss and Rubenstein say they have no regrets over their dreams to build a modern oasis in a traditional neighborhood. The painters came this week and the couple hope to be in their new home by the end of October, with a new baby on the way.
"That's part of why we love Minneapolis so much," Rubenstein said. "It's a dynamic city, always in flux. It's fun to see that and to build in that environment. I think it adds a different kind of character."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335