Lazor Office creates a tree house in Minneapolis for a couple passionate about contemporary living and design

By Joel Hoekstra

Minimalist modern design is sometimes characterized as white, hard, no frills, humorless. But one recent morning, designer Charlie Lazor, Assoc. AIA, standing in the living room of a clean-lined, contemporary residence he calls the Stack House, acknowledged that he sometimes indulges a whim, adding a fun flourish or two. He gestured to a swoop of white oak above the fireplace that resembles a pair of opposing ski jumps in cross-section. Without warning, he vaulted into the niche, curled himself into a corner, and feigned reading a book. “We call it the half-pipe lounge,” he said, referencing a common feature found on snowboarding courses.

Lazor is perhaps best known for designing the FlatPak house, a panelized modular residence that can be prefabricated and built on almost any site. But his firm, Lazor Office, has also designed one-of-a-kind private homes for clients in California and Arizona, weekender cabins in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and workspaces for Twin Cities companies. His designs are varied—a home on stilts, a trapezoidal garage—and usually derive from his desire to play with a particular concept. The Stack House was born out of Lazor’s interest in negative spaces. “By stacking bricks on top of each other, one can create different voids and views, depending on how you arrange and stack them,” Lazor explains. In the case of the Stack House, a vertical approach also helped address the challenges presented by his clients’ property—a steep urban infill lot just west of Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.

Mandy Tuong and Paul Johnston are lawyers by profession, but each has a keen appreciation for the arts. A graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, Johnston spent his college years living, studying, and worshipping in the nine Marcel Breuer buildings that have made the campus famous among fans of Brutalism worldwide. “I passed a lot of time sitting under and thinking about that cantilevered balcony in the Abbey Church,” he says. His appreciation for modern architecture grew even deeper, he says, after moving to New York City, where he worked for a time in a Philip Johnson–designed office tower, and traveling in Europe.

Tuong’s passion for the arts is the result of her training in music: She has played piano since age 5 and earned a degree in piano performance from Oberlin College. She says the couple’s decision to hire a designer to realize their dream of owning a modern home was a no-brainer—like commissioning a composer to write a concerto. “We knew enough to know that we needed someone else’s distinctive design style and approach,” says Tuong. “A well-designed house is like a good piece of music: You can’t just throw a lot of notes together. You need someone to put it together with a theme and harmony and structure.”

The clients’ lot climbs more than 10 feet from front to back. But the design challenge presented by the slope also offered opportunities: Keeping the footprint tight and building vertically would allow for more windows, sunlight, and even a view of the nearby lake.

Lazor began playing with blocks, stacking rectangular volumes until he settled on a relatively straightforward three-story design: The blocks became the private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms, and the gaps, niches, and negative spaces in between became the areas for entertaining guests, relaxing with family, watching a movie, or nesting in the half-pipe lounge. The openness allows Tuong and Johnston to interact with each other and guests from almost anywhere in the house. Communication between the living room, kitchen, dining room, music room, TV lounge, and backyard is possible—even if you can’t always see the person you’re talking to.

Lazor notes that the stacked volumes also channel sightlines: Those set perpendicular to the street facilitate glances in and out of the house, while parallel ones block views. The stacked design and extensive use of glass also maximize sunlight from the east and west while blocking southern exposure.

Last fall, while soaking in the tub in the third-floor master suite, Tuong looked out a window and saw the foliage of a tree in full red flame. “That’s when I realized I was living in a tree house,” she says. Downstairs, a reading room likewise seems suspended above the street, giving the owners a clear view of whoever might be walking past or pulling into the driveway.

Tuong says Lazor spent a lot of time asking her and her husband about how they lived. “He wanted to know what we did on weekends, how we liked to entertain, how we saw living in the house in the future,” says Tuong. The result? The ceiling of the music room is contoured like an acoustical shell. The flush cabinetry and sleek island in the kitchen meet Johnston’s need for clean lines. Everything is personalized yet integrated. “The cozy niches and rooms throughout the house are qualitatively unique spaces,” says Lazor. “But they also meld into each other to create the kind of free-flowing space we like to live in today.”

The designer’s attention to details resulted in a house that’s like a fugue, says Tuong. Aesthetic themes and materials are woven together in harmony; small touches align with big motifs. “I think it will be very hard if we have to move to another house someday,” she adds. “Living in this house has probably changed the trajectory of our living experiences forever.”

Inside: Recessed halogen lights, daylighting, a gas fireplace, and riff-sawn white oak—finished to look like raw wood—warm the interior. Outside: White corrugated metal, cedar planking, lots of glass, and black perforated-metal screens give the exterior variety and geometric definition and layering. Landscaping: Behind the house, a vertical “fence” of evergreens shades a courtyard of roughhewn bluestone pavers and giant basalt boulders from Wisconsin.

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Clients: Mandy Tuong and Paul Johnston
Designer: Lazor Office
Principal-in-charge: Charlie Lazor, Assoc. AIA
Project lead designer: Charlie Lazor, Assoc. AIA
Landscape designer: Lazor Office and Terra Vista
General contractor: Vercon
Size: 3,200 square feet
Completion: August 2016
Photographer: Peter VonDeLinde