A distinctively modern home is designed to brighten the living experience in all four seasons

By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

Every climate has a characteristic quality of light, and the AIA Minnesota Honor Award–winning home designed by D/O beautifully captures what the author Henry Plummer calls the ethereal “Nordic light” of higher latitudes. Standing on a narrow corner lot in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood, the two-story, flat-roofed, cedar-clad house serves as a kind of light catcher. Horizontal swaths of black-framed windows let morning light into the living room and bedrooms above, midday light into the kitchen, and afternoon light into the second-floor family room—all while providing stunning views of the Luther Seminary campus across the street and of the Minneapolis skyline from the second-floor deck. “Our scarcity of light in winter,” says D/O’s John Dwyer, AIA, makes light and “whiteness essential to our psychological survival as the world turns dark and blue.”

The landscape and the interior of the house also reflect heightened sensitivity to our northern climate. While the tightness of the roughly triangular site necessitated the house’s trapezoidal plan—“a vertical extrusion of the zoning envelope,” Dwyer notes—the small plot of land also demanded the removal of several of the property’s mature trees, “a remnant of the oak and aspen savanna that once dominated the St. Paul–Baldwin Plains,” says D/O’s Colin Oglesbay. The designers replaced them with a landscape of historical plantings—oak and aspen trees and cultivars of native grasses—in an urban proportion, creating a low-maintenance, drought-resistant lawn. “The aspen trees will also color the home’s interior with an intense yellow light in the fall,” says Oglesbay.

That attention to the quality of light in the house drove other design decisions as well. In homage to the site’s white oaks, D/O specified white-oak floors and ceilings lightened with a diluted whitewash “to increase the bounce of light,” says Dwyer, and “warm the blue light” off the snow in winter. White walls, countertops, and appliances further reflect light deep into the house, with a translucent white-plastic railing and open-tread stairs letting light spill into the two-story dining room and unfinished basement. Upstairs, dark-felt carpet tiles and a slate bathroom floor absorb the stronger light through the second-floor windows and soften its intensity in the white-walled bedrooms and informal living room. Those spaces seem to “reside in the tree canopy,” says Dwyer; the owners of the house attest to the gorgeous views they have from their elevated perch.

The house is characterized by lightness in a second way, as well. Its owners wanted to downsize and simplify their lives, and they asked their architects for a home that required little maintenance and allowed them to occupy only one floor in the future, if necessary. D/O responded with a highly efficient plan that met “the minimum square footage and minimum widths allowed by the City of St. Paul,” says Oglesbay. The openness of the living, dining, and kitchen areas to each other—and the flow of the second-floor living space out to the expansive deck—makes the relatively small house feel much larger.

Likewise, running white-oak-veneered benches along the length of the living and dining rooms adds more seating for family gatherings without cluttering the compact plan with additional furniture. The owners—avid bikers with only one car—chose the site in part because of its proximity to stores and transit. The home’s walkable location and modest size have as much to do with the quality of life it offers as the luminous character of its interiors and the low-maintenance convenience of its materials. The house embodies not just Nordic light but also a kind of personal enlightenment.

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Architect: D/O
Design team: John Dwyer, AIA; Colin Oglesbay; Edward Eichten, Assoc. AIA; Phillip Koski, AIA
General contractor: Brownsmith Restoration
Landscape contractor: Terra Vista
Size: 1,750 square feet
Completion: September 2015
Photographer: Chad Holder


“With houses you often say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before.’ But not with this one. The ideas and the execution in this project are fresh.”

“Too often, designers think, ‘Oh, I need a handrail, and that should be a different material or have a different expression.’ Here, the architect and the owners came up with a limited set of materials and details, and then they deployed them.”