weeHouse is BIG on innovation

Linden Hills has new addition in a prefabricated, modular home that’s environmentally friendly

LINDEN HILLS — In many ways, Brian Oeschgard’s new Linden Hills home seems rather ordinary.

It has the traditional features that add to the warmth of a home: a cedar exterior, a cozy fireplace, wood flooring and an open floor plan that flows smoothly from one room to another. The familiar setting makes it almost easy to forget that this house recently arrived in Linden Hills in four modular pieces and was put in place by a crane.

Oeschgard’s home is one of only five of its kind in Minnesota. In a neighborhood filled with everything from Victorian style cottages to postwar bungalows, Linden Hills’ new arrival near the intersection of West 42nd Street and Ewing Avenue represents the latest innovations in home building.

The structure, named the “weeHouse” after the original design’s size, is best described as prefabricated modular housing. Homebuyers can choose from a few popular formats — such as the four-module Big Box, a four-bedroom 2,240-square-foot home that goes for around $280,000 — or start from scratch by choosing the size, number and placement of modules.

Oeschgard first learned about the weeHouse at the 2006 Walker Art Center Exhibit “Some Assembly Required,” which featured modern “prefab” homes. He wanted to incorporate the modern feel of homes usually found in urban areas into a house in a neighborhood setting.

“I’ve always wanted to do a new-construction home, kind of a dream of mine. I decided this would be the best of both worlds,” Oeschgard said.

Minnesotan Geoffrey Warner, founder of Alchemy Architects and creator of the weeHouse, dreamt up the idea of creating prefabricated modular housing in an effort to lower the cost and waste accumulated while building a home. WeeHouses are constructed using 20 percent recycled materials and designed to have little impact on the
environment.

Space-efficient, “hallway-less” designing allowed Oeschgard to fit a 2,200-square-foot four-bedroom home in a narrow lot while leaving every tree untouched.

“It kind of feels like this home has been here for 10 years,” Oeschgard said. “It has a really nice feel to it. It’s really efficient, and there’s very little wasted space in the house.”

Despite an overcast sky, light shone abundantly through an eight-foot, triple-pane glass door opening up to a cozy front porch. A staircase wrapped in bamboo leads from the foyer to a bedroom where another eight-foot glass door opens to a French Balcony. To the east and west, rows of four horizontal windows provide a landscape view of a tree-filled yard.

This latest weeHouse features a wide array of other environmentally friendly features.

“The entire house is foam insulated instead of regular fiberglass insulation. The furnace is the most efficient we could get — it’s 96 percent efficient. Just simply by doing the foam insulation, you save up to 50 percent on your heating bill,” Oeschgard said.

Dual flush toilets and triple-pane windows will lower the cost of Oeschgard’s water and heating bills, respectively. He also considered installing solar-heating panels or using geothermal heating, wherein wells are drilled below the basement and warm water is pumped from underground to heat the home, but he found these features cost-prohibitive.

Scott Ervin, a designer for Alchemy Architects and project manager for the latest weeHouse, cited other hidden savings and sustainability measures.

“The materials are prepurchased and ready to install when they start building the house, so the countless ‘gas guzzling’ runs to the lumberyard or hardware store are a thing of the past,” Ervin said.

While Oeschgard felt the project was a big undertaking, he enjoyed the large role he was able to play in designing his home.

He began by choosing the number and size of modules and their placement. Next, he chose the location of windows and staircases and personalized the designs by adding porches, and choosing interior finishes, flooring, lighting, and IKEA cabinetry.

Once the process of customization was complete, the modules were constructed in one of the nine weeHouse factories in the United States and Canada and delivered using trucks and a crane. He then hired local contractors to install the modules, hook up utilities and add the finishing touches.

Alchemy Architects visited the site of the Linden Hills home several times during the design process to make the most of the space.

“More than half [of homes] aren’t designed specifically for the lot. They don’t take into account where the sun is setting, where the sun is rising. There are a couple of homes in Linden Hills that are expensive and they only have one or two windows facing south,” Oeschgard said.

While modern, modular design is new to this Linden Hills street, neighbors seemed to welcome the addition.

“Everyone from young to old has stopped by. There’s a procession of cars,” Oeschgard said. “I’ve had at least 10 people recently call and e-mail me, wanting to know how to do this.”

Linden Hills resident Alice Bratter tailored an afternoon walk to include a view of the new home.

“I heard about it,” she said. “I’m not here by accident. It certainly is a different style from everything that surrounds it, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It keeps the feel of the street, and it doesn’t look too big for the lot.”

Oeschgard plans to host an open house in late October, when the interior work is complete. The reception the home received has led him to consider using his role as a Realtor to help others choose a site and navigate the process of building a weeHouse.

“There’s this huge demand for modern homes because so many people live Downtown in the Warehouse District, but they don’t have options to buy a house in a nice neighborhood that’s modern,” Oeschgard said. “It’s a worthwhile investment.”

While the process from conception to completion can take up to a year, about the same timeframe as building a traditional home, constructing a weeHouse is a unique experience.

“I didn’t have a year of construction in the street,” Oeschgard said. “Basically, within two weeks we [had] all the exterior work complete.”