A glass house by ALTUS Architecture + Design brings the beauty of a secluded natural setting indoors

By Joel Hoekstra

How do you design a new house to exist quietly in a densely wooded landscape?

ALTUS Architecture + Design’s Tim Alt, AIA, began to consider this question a few years ago when clients approached him about building on a six-acre site overlooking wetlands and a small lake in Woodland, west of the Twin Cities. The couple wanted a change—they’d previously owned a cottage-style residence—and hoped to build a home where they could live and work, even as they transitioned into retirement.

The clients engaged Alt because a house he designed on White Bear Lake had made a big impression on them when they toured it on the Homes by Architects Tour. They were drawn to the home’s organization into three single-level wings connected by scaled-down links; its indoor/outdoor spatial continuity; and its core material palette of bluestone and wood. The design goal was to have Alt adapt and refine these concepts into a home that would integrate into its forest setting. “We wanted something simple, where the outdoors could be the backdrop,” says one of the owners.

Alt responded with an elegant glass and dark-stained cedar jewel case that feels much larger than its 2,600 square feet of living space because of its openness to the surrounding scenery. In the main living area with the kitchen and the dining and living spaces, the long south wall is mostly glass, creating a panoramic view and dissolving the boundary between inside and out. A 13-foot-high ceiling supported by cedar beams and columns augments the sense of spaciousness.

“The project became an exploration of ‘organic minimalism,’” says Alt. “Guided by the natural beauty of the site, we designed the house to be ‘hidden’ in the woods through scale and materials, while also creating a dramatic vantage point from which to observe the wetland and the lake beyond.”

Anchoring one end of the main living space is a bluestone fireplace and chimney with a blackened-steel hearth and vertical niche (the latter showcases a treasured sculpture). On the other side, a freestanding box dubbed “the cube” contains kitchen storage, a powder room, and laundry facilities. The main living spaces step out onto a long bluestone terrace shaded by a prefabricated cedar-frame pergola with powder-coated, steel-bar grating for the canopy.

From the central space the owners can retreat to an office/guest room behind the cube or to the den-and-master-suite wing at the other end of the residence. Like the living and dining area, these private spaces enjoy floor-to-ceiling views of the wetland landscape. Materials throughout the home are simple yet sumptuous: cedar, walnut, steel, bluestone, and glass.

While the home uses dark-stained cedar siding to blend into its wooded site, another structure designed by Alt—an adjacent freestanding building was created to house yard-maintenance equipment—is clad in folded, mirror-polished stainless-steel panels to achieve a different quality of invisibility. The architect views the outbuilding and its reflections as a foil to the home. “We wanted to create a mystery object,” says Alt. “It’s intended to be a counterpoint to what the house is about. It’s an opaque element that’s actually transparent.”

After a few years of living in the home, the owners have come to appreciate its design even more. “It’s concise, but it also feels like a grand space,” says one of them. “There’s a lot of bang for your buck.” She loves the home’s up-close relationship with nature and the seasons. Spring erupts with buds and yellow-greens. Summer brings dazzling sunlight. The surrounding maples and oaks burst like fireworks in the fall. And in winter, the flakes swirl. “The other day,” she says, “I thought we were living in a snow globe.”

Location: Woodland, Minnesota
Architect: ALTUS Architecture + Design
Principal-in-charge:T.A. Alt, AIA
Project lead designer: T.A. Alt, AIA
General contractor: Streeter & Associates
Size: 2,600 square feet of living space
Completion: December 2015
Photographer: Paul Crosby