Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Descending to the Challenge

looking down from the highest deck level at the Albertsson/Hansen House

It has always seemed to me that little residential city lots should exhibit better interface between land and building. After all, the houses are small, so families need to get outdoors to have more space. And there are other houses all around, which makes the typical 50x150 lot more like an urban plaza than a green yard. And yet, the norm runs more toward gumball spirea, overgrown arborvitae, and a hastily-laid paver patio where the picnic table never quite sits evenly.

Christine Albertsson and Todd Hansen (of Albertsson Hansen Architecture) have an even tougher site: it’s high above Minnehaha Creek and the area behind the house drops precipitously into a floodplain thicket. The only useable space at all was the half-a-postage-stamp front yard.

When they added on to their little saltbox house, they built a bright red tower that sits low on the slope and extends up three stories behind and to the side of the original house. Though the interface between the two on the inside is a small bit of architectural mastery, what was done with the outdoor spaces is creative and elegant.

looking up from a lower level at the main middle level and the new screened porch

The rear side of the two-part house creates a little intimate niche into which the pair has built a vertically stacked series of decks. Descending them from the main house level brings different experiences of the forest, different unique spaces, and, perhaps most notably, different entrances into the house. At the lowest level, the deck system gives access to the “basement” of the new red tower, which is a guest/media room tucked into the slope. Throughout, the details are simple (wood and steel wire rails), and that allows the multi-textured house and the forest to become the real show.

wood and steel detailing at the lowest deck level

This house and landscape together offer up a variety of outdoor, indoor, and combination spaces not often achieved on small city lots. Though Christine and Todd’s site is unusual (and pretty stunning), using the house (whether existing or new) as a spatial divider is an under-used tool by both architects and landscape architects. This is such an improvement over a few concrete steps out the back door.

looking up at the complex outdoor space tucked into a niche between the new parts of the house (red) and the original structure (white)

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