A Modern Home with a Natural Flair

Tucked away up on a hill looking down on Lake Brophy near Alexandria, Erika Johnson’s decidedly contemporary home makes a statement with its sharp corners and steel siding, mixed with touches of cedar and stucco. Dramatic decks and patios add to the modern lines of this secluded treasure.

Erika was personally involved with every tiny detail in the design of her home, including exactly how and where it sits on the 6.1 acre lot. Instead of directly facing the lake, it is off center at a slight angle that enhances her views of Lake Brophy and beyond.

“I never thought about building a house before this, but I’ve always been drawn to modern architecture,” says Erika, an OB/GYN who graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School. She lived in St. Paul and then Maui prior to moving to Alexandria 14 years ago, where her identical twin sister Sandi is also a doctor.

“I finally decided that I love the water and I love kayaking,” she says. “So why wasn’t I living on a lake, and what was I waiting for?”

After purchasing this undeveloped lot with more than 900 feet of shoreline in 2013, she spent the next couple years sketching out her design ideas – and changing her mind a multitude of times about the house she would build.

During that time, Sandi and her husband, who live on a nearby lake, lost their home to a fire and had to rebuild entirely.

“Watching my sister lose her home was awful, but then I watched them build a brand new place on the lake,” she says. Although she admits the twin sisters have totally different tastes and styles – Sandi’s house design is much more traditional – Erika turned to the same builder, Brian P. Johnson Construction. Throughout her sister’s building process, Erika became convinced that Brian would be the craftsman to help bring her contemporary home design to reality. “I had been carrying around these little pieces of paper with my little drawings for so long, and I finally decided I needed to move forward.”

To begin tackling the task of consolidating all those pieces of paper into a workable plan, Erika initially began working with a draftsman. Then Brian introduced her to an interior designer, Jill Stoeck from JS DESIGN whose 3D drawings allowed Erika to slowly see how those tiny pieces of paper would come to life.

“Jill and I played with it for more than a month, and unfortunately, I had to give up some of my loftier ideas, like the all-glass wall I had envisioned,” she says with a laugh. One of the benefits of working with Jill and the 3D design is that she was able to see the entire home complete both inside and out before even breaking ground. Using 3D design makes some decisions easier when homeowners can’t visualize the space. “The entire time I was making decisions on my home, however, there was one thing I was thinking about that I knew I wouldn’t give up: I wanted to make the entire house and grounds as environmentally friendly as possible.”

The home was completed in 2015, and in taking a closer look, signs of those “green” efforts are apparent. The installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system and energy-saving LED lights throughout the house are a couple examples. Furthermore, they used as many natural materials as possible, planted native grasses and flowers instead of a lawn, and, most recently, installed a series of solar panels.

A geothermal system, according to Jill, is a series of wells in an underground piping system, called a “loop.” Water circulates in that loop, taking advantage of the warm temperature of the underground water to heat the home in the winter, and the cooler underground water temperature to cool it in the summer. “These systems initially can be very expensive to install,” she says, “but they have long-term benefits both financially and environmentally.”

Ellingson’s hooked up the entire system to a TRANE furnace system to ensure dependable backup heat.

At 4,700 square feet with four bedrooms, 4 ½ baths, a screened-in porch, three additional decks, and a 3-car garage, the home got “way bigger” than Erika intended it to be, but the views are amazing, and it’s a “perfect” place to live, along with her mother and 16-year-old son.

In her research on energy savings, Erika found out the square contemporary look and design she envisioned would actually make the house more energy efficient.
“If you have too many ‘boxes’ in the design element, you can lose heat, so I decided, ultimately, to make it very square for that reason,” she says. “The squarer it is, the more efficient it is.”

Modern Touches

Because Jill was involved with Erika throughout the entire building process, she found that this homeowner’s heart was entirely into both the environment and the contemporary look of the house.

“One of the interior features that highlights the home’s modern tone is the cable rail system on the way,” she says. “Erika saw these distinctive stainless steel cables, with a maple handrail, in a magazine, and she showed it to Brian and asked if he could make it that way.”

Since he enjoys working on creative and unique stairways, Brian was up to the task. “It took special measuring and drilling, and lots of time to create that stairway just the way she wanted it,” he says, “but it truly gives the inside of the house a contemporary feel, it is one of my favorite parts of the home for me.”

They also created a modified version of that same cable rail system on two of the home’s decks, tying together the modern theme from inside to outside. One of those decks, facing the lake, is cantilevered out of the house on the lakeside with hidden structural beams. It appears to be sitting
straight out from the house, adding more drama to the contemporary style.

Erika’s love of the outdoors necessitated those numerous outdoor living spaces. There is also a screened porch off the kitchen area that is used for eating meals, and there is another unique deck on the second level that sits directly above her living room.

“Built over an interior ceiling, it has a glass railing with rubber pavers for the floor and cedar on the walls and ceiling,” Jill explains. “It’s still within the house ‘footprint,’ but it is outside. The views from this porch are incredible. This is very unique to the house and geographical area to have a porch over the interior of the home.”

Specialized Flooring

The quiet, forgiving and natural qualities of cork flooring appealed to Erika for the entire downstairs of the home. In her master bathroom shower upstairs, she also has a cork floor with a distinctive design that incorporates unusual little tiles of turtles and dragonflies that she brought back from Maui and are very special to her. Using a specific grout that would expand with the natural cork, those tiles were carefully imbedded into the cork floor for a sentimental look and feel.

The rest of the upstairs flooring is elm and all from the Wood from the Hood Program, which reclaims discarded trees from Minneapolis neighborhoods – “recycled from the Twin Cities urban forest” – to create wood products for environmentally sensitive building and remodeling.

Solar Energy

Erika’s desire to be as environmentally friendly as possible eventually led to the installation of solar panels after she moved in. “I didn’t initially consider solar panels, but the house used way more electricity than I initially estimated,” Erika explains. “I didn’t want my personal energy consumption to be that high, and with the solar panels, it should reduce the energy burden by more than half – we’re hoping for a 3/5 reduction.”

Natural Grasses

Environmental concerns also led Erika to the grounds around the house. One of the most amazing elements of this property is the native grasses and flowers.

“I’m working with Prairie Restoration on native planting with native grasses, bushes and wildflowers,” she says. “Most of this acreage is either woods or wetland, and of the area that used to be wild grass, more than half will now be native prairie.”

Erika admits that it’s “sort of odd” to have this modern house on property that will have all native grasses, but eliminating a lawn to mow and establishing the prairie grasses are higher priorities for her. Those prairie grasses are in the first year of the five years it will take until they’re completely established, when her “yard” will actually resemble the look of an old-fashioned prairie.

“Most of this property isn’t seen by anyone else,” Erika adds. “You wouldn’t even know there’s a house back there when you approach the area, and nobody can see my lot until they turn into the long, private driveway. The whole prairie grass look isn’t for passersby – it’s for the birds, butterflies and bees!”

This project was very unique according to the builder, Brian, and designer, Jill. They both find it extremely gratifying to see Erika and her family in their new home, surrounded with the love of nature and the preservation of the environment. ~L&H

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