A cluster of wood-paneled buildings surrounds a central courtyard of this Minnesota residence owned by Salmela Architect, a US company that was designed for clients who previously lived in Japan.
The project, called Fifty-Acre Wood, is located in Stillwater – a historic town on the St Croix River, just beyond Minneapolis. The home rests on 20 acres, the majority of which customers have given the Minnesota Land Trust for permanent preservation.
The property is near a waterfall and features an oak forest and fields that are re-sown with native grasses. The area is home to a range of wildlife including black bear, fox, crane, and blue heron.
The owners are a married couple – Yuko and Paul – who met and lived in Japan before moving to Minnesota with their two young sons. Paul grew up exploring the St. Croix River Valley and wanted his children to have a similar experience.
In contrast to Paul’s upbringing, Yuko grew up in the dense Japanese city of Fukuoka and initially felt unsafe to live in a vast landscape.
“They wanted a home that felt protected, with the incorporation of familiar cultural references in this unfamiliar setting,” said Salmela Architect, a Minnesota company known for designing homes in the regional Modernist style.
The architects designed a series of buildings that are grouped around a central courtyard. The design is based on two references: a collection of farm buildings with a shed roof and a Japanese courtyard house with sheltered outside corridors.
The main house consists of two pavilions that form an L-shape and are connected by a glazed passage. Nearby there is a detached guest house, garage and multi-purpose building.
“Each of the five structures is positioned according to function, solar orientation and relationship to the particular features of the landscape,” says the company.
Facades are clad with cedar wood and roofs are covered with standing seam sheets. The interior decor includes slate tiles, quartz countertops, and ceilings that are encased in pale-toned basswood.
In the main apartment there is a clear separation between public and private spaces.
A pavilion includes a semi-open kitchen, dining area and living room. It sits on an east-west axis and looks out over a gently rolling field.
“Floor-to-ceiling windows facing south create a sense of inside-outside continuity, reinforced by horizontal wooden slats on both the outside soffit and the inside ceiling,” the team said.
“This Japanese architectural reference helps soften the acoustics of the hard surfaces in the wide open space.”
In the kitchen, the team provided views in all directions. A large, northern window offers lines of sight to the inner courtyard of the house, the entrance way and the driveway and offers a feeling of security.
The house lacks a traditional foyer. Instead, you step onto a threshold made up of “symmetrical blade walls” that lie between the kitchen and a toilet.
“While customers were initially hesitant about the atypical arrival sequence, they expressed how pleasant it was to welcome people into their home without the typical awkwardness of a formal foyer,” the team said.
The other pavilion of the house, which houses bedrooms, runs from north to south and hugs the edge of the forest.
“The three bedrooms and two ofuro – shower and tub rooms – overlook the oak forest, which filters warm morning light through its leaves and signals the start of the day,” said the studio.
The sleeping areas are arranged along a corridor that doubles as a work area.
“It stays in the shade the whole working day and creates an ideal glare-free environment until the deep evening sun signals dinner time,” said the company.
Throughout the residence, the team integrated a number of elements to reduce energy consumption. These include operable windows, hydronic underfloor heating, an air-to-air heat exchanger and high insulation.
“A two-meter-deep eaves and a south-facing orientation allow for an optimal passive solar strategy that maximizes heat gain in winter and at the same time completely blocks the midsummer sun,” added the team.
The house also has three skylights that open and close to allow hot air to escape. At night the boxes are illuminated with electric light.
Beyond the main house, the team built a guest house to the west that offers overnight guests, including Yuko’s parents from Japan, a degree of seclusion and privacy.
To the north is a two-story garage and the “barn” which is a multi-purpose room for playing and storing. The buildings are accessed via paved walkways that surround the courtyard.
“Outside walkways surround the inner courtyard, which is sown with native vegetation – a microcosm and a counterpoint to the larger landscape restoration project,” said the team.
Salmela Architect’s other projects include a house for a physicist and ophthalmologist, which is supposed to resemble a “scientific instrument with multiple viewing openings”, and a solar-powered house that was created for an architecture professor.
The photography is by Corey Gaffer.
Architect: Salmela architect
Team: David Salmela (Director), Kai Salmela (Design Director), Emre Erenler
Energy advisor: Malini Srivastava
Structural engineer: Meyer Borgman Johnson
Contractor: Cates Fine Homes