Thinking inside the (concrete) box

KINGFIELD — Becoming a homeowner is the final frontier to independent living, a type of status for which many working adults strive. But how often do aspiring homeowners decide the exact details of each room, from the foundation up, before move-in day?

Andrew Blauvelt, the design director at the Walker Art Center, and his partner Scott Winter, the director of Walker’s Annual Fund, did just that in deciding to build their ultra-modern urban residence at 38th Street & Lyndale Avenue.

“I wanted to build a modern house because there’s not enough modern architecture in Minnesota — for my taste,” Blauvelt said.

Although a modernist architectural design is uncommon for a house in the Twin Cities, it is not uncommon in other types of buildings, such as apartments and retail stores.

“Having a big rectangle box [for a building] is not strange for this environment,” Winter said. “It’s just odd that it’s a residence and not a Dunn Bros.”

Blauvelt and Winter got the idea of building their own house after spending much of their past living in loft-style apartments. After growing tired of not living in their own home, they decided to buy. But they also wanted to preserve certain parts of the loft lifestyle to which they were so accustomed.

“We had been living in condos that we owned for a number of years, and it just felt like it was time to live in a residence,” Winter said, adding that Blauvelt’s design background helped prompt them to choose building a home over buying a home.

The result is their house, a two-story block of concrete and wood. It sports an exterior that contrasts smooth concrete on the first story with dense Brazilian walnut wood called Ipe [pronounced “e-pay”] on the second story. Inside, the ground level floor and living room walls are made of the same concrete that’s displayed outside on the first story.  

Insulation is embedded between the inside and outside layers of concrete, creating what Blauvelt called a “concrete sandwich,” a complicated and expensive process, he said. The concrete is also self-consolidated, meaning it doesn’t have to be aerated, which gives it a tight, soft finish rather than a rough, gritty texture.

Blauvelt said the concrete was selected and formed to radiate the same type of character that’s found in old stone or old brick walls.

Blauvelt and Winter’s house is comparable to loft living in that their second story bedroom is exposed to the living room. Both rooms share a ceiling that extends 21 feet from the living room floor. The second story also features a bathroom, which still needs a tub and a few sinks installed, and a study room.

The project began in 2004, when Blauvelt and Winter purchased the lot where their house now stands.  

“Everyone has been really surprised when we said that this was a vacant lot,” Winter said. “I think it naturally looked like the side yard to the house next door, which is a little bittersweet for the guy over there.”

During excavation, they found that the empty lot had a foundation from a house that burned down in the 1930s, Blauvelt said. They quickly excavated out the old foundation and put in new, clean fill, proceeding with original construction from a new foundation.

With the help of architect Julie Snow, the leader of her namesake Minneapolis studio who said her work is characterized by refined detail, lightness and spatial clarity, building the house became a 14-month process. Blauvelt and Winter moved in toward the end of last October.

From the beginning, a lot of their decisions on the house were focused on what the next buyer would want.  

“On some level, we figured — just like us — someone would get tired of loft living but love the loft lifestyle,” Winter said. “We figure it’s sort of a starter home for folks.”

Despite its unusual design, the house shares several basic features with other typical South Minneapolis homes. It measures around 2,000 square feet and contains two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a detached garage and a courtyard.  

“It keeps in the format of the historical neighborhood,” Blauvelt said.  

It wasn’t easy, but Winter said the house is worth all the work.      

“It’s a calculated risk to have this kind of modern lifestyle,” he said. “But the reality is it’s loft living, and we’re very familiar with that.”