CityDeskStudio blends sustainability and practicality in a Stillwater home that lives lightly on the land

By Amy Goetzman

The mixed landscape of woods and prairie on a lake near the Brown’s Creek State Trail is the kind of swoon-worthy property on which you might imagine a large, sprawling retreat, or one broken up into a cluster of dwellings. Kirsten and Jon Yocum instead built a house that was scaled to the actual needs of her family and respectful of the ecosystem in which it sits.

“We put a lot of thought into the entire site, because we wanted to be good neighbors to the wildlife and watershed, and preserve what was there before,” says Kirsten Yocum. “We didn’t want to overbuild the site. That didn’t seem responsible.”

Yocum assembled a team that included CityDeskStudio architect Ben Awes, AIA, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District, and the landscape architecture firm Urban Ecosystems. Together, the team worked to incorporate solar-ready design, a geothermal system, prairie restoration, rain gardens, and stormwater runoff strategies into a forward-thinking home and landscape.

When Yocum sat down with Awes at the outset of the project, she had very specific ideas for the house, all stemming from her environmental interests and love of modern Scandinavian design. She’d been planning the home for years, and even had some materials lined up, including laboratory countertops she’d found at sales of surplus equipment and materials at 3M and the University of Minnesota. She wanted the rock uncovered in the foundation excavation to go into the landscaping, and the trees cut from the site to be milled for the home’s woodwork.

“This was a dream collaboration,” says Awes, who worked on a basement renovation for the family’s previous home. “Kirsten was remarkably prepared; she knew exactly what home meant to her and what she wanted to create for her family. And then she trusted the design process.”

The low-slung, cedar-clad home, perched atop a slope overlooking the lake, has a clean-lined Scandinavian character. Its most dramatic flourish is a sequence of three gables—one larger, two smaller—that shapes a striking interior for the open kitchen, dining, and living area. “It creates an intimate space filled with light and volume,” says Awes. “The beautiful lake views make it dynamic in all seasons.”

Informed by her background in physical therapy, Yocum asked for an arrangement of rooms that would enable her and her husband to age in place. The master suite, for example, sits just off the living spaces on the main level. The house also needed an accessible apartment for her mother, separate from the family room and bedrooms on the lower level. (As it turns out, the attention given to thresholds, lighting, bathroom accessibility, and safety features also served the couple’s children when they suffered broken bones.)

The detached garage is reached via a sheltered walkway. “A separate garage isn’t always ideal for accessibility, but the way Ben designed the overhang creates the perfect connection,” says Yocum. “All the lines come together with a beautiful rhythm, and the walkway offers good sightlines and protection from the weather.” Awes says that pulling the garage off the house allowed the team to integrate a runoff channel through the opening. It just happened to pull the entire design together.

“There were so many elements like that that came from working with a team that had such a close understanding of the entire site,” says Awes. “It was an amazing project. If I never get to do another home like this one, I will still feel lucky, because I got to do this one.”

Location: Stillwater, Minnesota
Clients: Kirsten and Jon Yocum
Architect: CityDeskStudio
Principal-in-charge: Ben Awes, AIA
Project lead designer: Chris Bach
Landscape architect: Urban Ecosystems
General contractor: Stinson Builders
Size: 4,190 square feet
Completion: September 2017
Photographer: Chad Holder