On the surface it was just another tear down, but in truth it was an adventure.
It started on a hot summer night a few years back with my wife and three cats sitting on our front porch in Linden Hills watching the world go by. Quite pleasantly, a woman walking down the street approached my wife and told her how much she loved our house and gardens and was curious to know if we’d ever consider selling. A little taken aback, my wife said no, but that her husband was the architect and he would gladly design her a home of her own. And off she went.
About a year later this same charming woman contacted me in regards to a house down the street that she was about to buy to determine whether she could easily transform it into the home of her dreams. As I often do after a careful assessment of a candidate for remodeling, I told her that the invest- ment would not be worth the outcome and that she should keep looking.
She paused, then said, “What if I tear it down?” As it turned out she didn’t want a large home, so it seemed like the numbers might work for her. After I provided some ballpark figures for new construction she decided to make a go of it, and I was going to be her architect. That’s when the fun began.
She wanted a modest home that would reflect the scale and character of the neighborhood, but not mirror it.
She wanted a fresh, contemporary companion to her more traditional neighbors, one that would inject new life and animation to the street while still respecting the wisdom of its era. The final design resulted in two bedrooms, two baths and a laundry up and a main level with a mudroom, bath, office, stair gallery, kitchen/living/ dining room and sunroom with built-in seating. And all of this in 1,950 square feet on two levels.
There would be another 750 square feet of finished space below grade with a half bath, an art room and a play space as well as an amphitheater exit to the descending yard and its pool and pool house. There would also be a one-car attached garage and decks and porches, fore and aft, for mingling with the neighbors and keeping an eye on the street.
Environmentally, we were looking for sustainability and energy efficiency. We specified staggered stud framing with closed-cell spray foam insulation for the exterior walls to reduce thermal bridging and make the house as tight as possible. The contractor was to meticu- lously seal up any leaks, week by week, and end with a blower door test to reveal any that might have been missed. Then we selected high efficiency mechanicals and appliances as well as low flow plumbing fixtures. And we specified sustainable versions of mate- rials plucked from the palette of the neighborhood such as permeable pavers, galvanized metal roofing, ipe decking and cement board lap siding.
The materials were selected and the drawings done, it was time to get the permit and start digging!
But that would have to wait. The building moratorium on new homes in Linden Hills had just gone into effect to give the city time to figure out how to reign in the flood of monster homes and abusive building practices. Not being able to build a small home perfectly scaled to its neighborhood was maddening, but it couldn’t be helped. The city work had to be done and it couldn’t wait or make exceptions. We’re all better for it, and a few months later, with the permit in hand, they removed the existing home and started to dig.
And they found trash and ash. The existing house had been sitting on a landfill that had been incinerated. Everyone was shocked. There had been no indication of differential settling or cracking in the old foundation or in the neighboring homes to the north and south. We knew the lots behind hers were formerly Lake Calhoun wetlands that had been filled, but this was high ground!
That it was artificially high finally sank in, so we took some borings and found good soil below the bad. The best solution was soil remediation. The contractor shored up the two adja- cent properties and a virtual caravan of dump trucks took the fill away and returned with equal loads of sand. Then there was the matter of the back yard pool and pool house, almost certainly on bad soil and not worth the cost of remediation, but not something the owner wanted to give up. So, much like the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo by Frank Lloyd Wright, we decided to build the pool and pool house on a structural concrete slab in an attempt to avoid the possible pitfalls of differential settling and lenses of bad soil. The slab was poured, the sand compacted, and at last the construction began!
We tore down a small house and built another one in its place. It was a labor of love and quite the adventure, but this little Phoenix literally rose out of the ashes of an incinerated landfill on a tight urban lot in the quaint little neighborhood of Linden Hills. And that charming woman no longer has any interest in our house.
Eric Odor is a principal with Minneapolis-based SALA Architects.