It all began in Marfa, Texas, a decade ago, when Andrew Blauvelt, the design director and curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Julie Snow, principal of Julie Snow Architects, both attended the inauguration of Dan Flavin’s seminal fluorescent light works at the Chinati Foundation. Flavin’s work was commanding, but it was Donald Judd’s concrete sculptures near the perimeter of the Chinati property that seduced Blauvelt. He was intrigued by the interface of the bunkerlike concrete slabs with the flat open land and loved the rhythm of Judd’s repeating forms. In a "Eureka!" moment Blauvelt knew a concrete home would be in his future.
But it wasn’t until after the trip that a deal between the two would be cemented: Blauvelt would go to work on Snow’s monograph Julie Snow Architects for Princeton Architectural Press if she would design him a home. Around the same time, Blauvelt was in the midst of a nascent relationship with colleague Scott Winter, the Walker’s director of the annual fund. The two began sharing living quarters in lofts in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. "What we really wanted was a loft on the ground with an open plan, but not a condo," says Winter. But finding a city lot near the Walker, a must given their demanding schedules, was no small task.
In 2004 Blauvelt found a lot for sale at the intersection of a four-lane artery and a two-lane cross street. The approximately 40-by-120-foot site had been vacant for decades and offered mature walnut and honey locust trees. Better yet, it was just over two miles from the office. At that moment, Blauvelt was entrenched in the Walker exhibition Some Assembly Required: Contemporary Prefabricated Houses, and he had prefab on the brain. But he kept coming back to Judd’s concrete sculptures. "I simply was drawn to the notion of concrete. So much great modern architecture has made use of it," he states. "The challenge, though, was to build a modern house that didn’t cost a million, but was still in the city." Winter adds, "After all, we’re just two people working for a nonprofit."
For Snow, the question was, how to create a personal space on a busy urban street corner? "In a city, your home is your urban retreat. It needs to encompass both a public and private persona," she explains. "You need to be able to remove yourself but still engage."
The deeply collaborative design process that ensued felt more like an architect-to-architect dialogue than an architect-to-client discussion. Snow shared sketches with Blauvelt and he drew designs to send back. Later, the trio would meet, handling chunks of concrete, wood, metal, glass, and other inspirational materials, to get a real sense of their tactility and material relationship. "Andrew is not trained in architecture, but he knows more about design than many architects," Snow says. "His library of design and architecture books is the most extensive of anyone I know. He’s compositional—he thinks in composed elements."
Ultimately, that graphic designer’s orderly sense resulted in a 24-foot-grid module that determined the house’s design. The flat-roofed concrete, wood, and glass house is essentially two joined 24-foot cubes, a similarly sized 16-foot-long walled courtyard, and a 24-by-24-foot garage. Blauvelt describes the nearly 2,000-square-foot home as "unheroic," and adds, "The grid design is a graphic control of the space."
In an effort to stay as green as possible, the team used an energy-efficient T-Mass insulated concrete wall system, developed by Dow Chemical Company, to construct the 11.5-inch-thick first-floor walls. Like a concrete sandwich, the walls are fabricated from self-consolidating concrete (SCC) filled with rigid foam insulation. The somewhat pillowy SCC finish suited the picky pair perfectly—not too rough, like a parking ramp, nor too smooth, like a polished floor. "Concrete was an easy solution, and it’s cheap. It is the simple things that make this place so special," says Blauvelt.
In contrast to the concrete, ipe—a dense, hard, rot-resistant wood—clads the second floor. The rich red-brown of the long horizontal ipe planks nicely sets off the unpigmented concrete below. But the real atmospheric tour de force is the rear, east-facing glass wall that rises the structure’s full two stories. "The light is beautiful but the wall is awfully revealing from the east," Blauvelt says. In another highly graphic move—designers do love their grids—Blauvelt notes that the window modulation is in two-, three-, and four-foot combinations, comparing it to a mathematics game.
One game that the couple rejects, however, is the one where a seemingly agoraphobic modernist, flat-roofed home on a large lot carefully camouflages itself behind trees and a large lawn. Rather, the house is exposed to everyone, in a neighborhood largely featuring early 20th-century homes and apartments. "It is a response to a corner lot at a busy intersection," says Snow. And although it is unique to the neighborhood, "it fits the city and the pattern of the neighborhood’s older housing stock—front yard, porch, house, yard, and garage—but with an updated design sense," she says.
It turns out that they’ve built their own version of a 100-year house. "I like the idea that, one day, 100 years from now, this box could still be here provid-ing shelter," says Winter. "It wasn’t the goal of our construction, but we’ve constructed a modern, sustainable century house." Blauvelt adds, "It is our gift to the community. The house will outlast us."
The house’s aim, to create a calming private space on a well-trod urban corner, is manifested through the crisp grid design and the master stroke of Snow’s plan: the malleable central courtyard, which seamlessly morphs from a serene retreat to a space that easily houses bustling parties. It’s also the perfect spot for a morning cup of coffee in the sun, a nicely shaded lunch, and a cool place for cocktails and dinner in the warmer months. "It is scaled perfectly for two but can easily accommodate 20 to 25 guests," comments Winter. "It’s a bit of a miracle that way."
"The center courtyard is the focal point of the house and that space is meant to be a sanctuary, a calming focus for us," Blauvelt continues. "The house is a great respite from the Walker’s busy event schedule, and we simply take refuge in it from the demands of our public life. It becomes even more important in Minneapolis as you are denied access to outdoor living so much of the year."
With Snow’s monograph and the Blauvelt-Winter House completed, the designers’ bargain is satisfied and each is thrilled with the results. The architect’s monograph benefits from a clean, careful design, and the couple got just what they wanted: a simple house with a keen sense of material, scale, and proportion. Their sole regret: "I didn’t build a library," Blauvelt sighs.