Japanese architecture informs Minnesota home by architect Salmela

A cluster of timber-clad buildings surround a central courtyard of this Minnesota residence of American firm Salmela Architect that was designed for clients who previously lived in Japan.


The project, called Fifty-Acre Wood, is located in Stillwater, a historic town along the St Croix River just beyond Minneapolis. The house sits on a fifty-acre (20-hectare) plot, the majority of which has been granted by clients to the Minnesota Land Trust for permanent conservation.

Fifty-Acre Wood is a home in Minnesota that was designed by Salmela Architect

Located near a waterfall, the property features an oak forest and agricultural fields reseeded with native herbs. The region is home to a variety of wildlife, including black bears, foxes, sandhill cranes and blue herons.

The owners are a married couple – Yuko and Paul – who met and lived in Japan before moving to Minnesota with their two young sons. Paul grew up exploring the Sainte-Croix River valley and wanted his children to have a similar experience.

Fifty acres of timber were covered with timber
It is made up of a set of volumes that house living and sleeping areas.

Unlike Paul’s upbringing, Yuko grew up in the dense Japanese city of Fukuoka, and at first she felt uncertain about living in a wide open landscape.

“His wishes were for a home that felt protected, with the inclusion of familiar cultural references in that unfamiliar setting,” said Salmela Architect, a Minnesota firm known for designing homes in a regional Modernist style.

Interior image of a living space at Fifty-Acre Wood
The house has a view of the surrounding landscape

The architects designed a series of buildings that are organized around a central courtyard. The design is based on two references: a group of farm buildings with a shed roof and a Japanese courtyard house with sheltered exterior walkways.

The main house is made up of two L-shaped pavilions linked by a glass passage. Nearby are an independent guest house, a garage and a multipurpose building.

The open kitchen of Fifty-Acre Wood
The interior benefits from a simple and minimal material palette

“Each of the five structures is positioned based on its function, solar orientation, and relationship to specific landscape features,” the company said.

The facades are clad in cedar and the roofs are clad in standing seam metal. Interior finishes include slate tile, quartz countertops, and ceilings covered in pale-toned lime wood.

Windows frame different views across the house
Cobbled walkways surround the house

In the main accommodation there is a clear separation between public and private spaces.

A pavilion includes a semi-open kitchen, a dining room and a living room. It sits on an east-west axis and looks out over a gently rolling field.

Image of a living room with a wooden roof in Fifty-Acre Wood
The living spaces have views of the site in all directions

“The south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows create a sense of interior-exterior continuity, which is reinforced by horizontal wood slats on the exterior soffit and interior ceiling,” the team said.

“This Japanese architectural reference helps soften the acoustics of the hard surfaces in the wide open room.”

In the kitchen, the team provided views in all directions. A large window to the north offers sight lines of the house’s courtyard, entry path, and driveway, providing a sense of security.

The house lacks a traditional hearth. Instead, you enter through a threshold made up of “symmetrical slat walls” that sit between the kitchen and a cloakroom.

“While guests were initially hesitant about the atypical arrival sequence, they expressed how comfortable it was to welcome people into their homes without the typical embarrassment associated with a formal home,” said the team.

The dining room of the Fifty-Acre Wood residence
The house has an open concept

The house’s other pavilion, which houses the bedrooms, stretches from north to south and hugs the edge of a forest.

“The three bedrooms and the two ofuro – shower and tub rooms – overlook the oak forest, which filters the warm morning light through its leaves, signaling the start of the day,” the studio said.

Full height windows allow light to enter the space
Tiles cover the floors of the common living spaces

The sleeping areas are arranged along a hallway which also serves as a workspace.

“It stays in the shade throughout the work day, creating an ideal glare-free environment until the low evening sun signals dinner time,” the company said.

Image of a bedroom at home
Sleeping areas are accessible along a hallway

Throughout the residence, the team has incorporated a number of elements to help reduce energy consumption. These include operable windows, a hydronic underfloor heating system, an air-to-air heat exchanger and a high level of insulation.

“Six-foot-deep eaves and southerly orientation allow for an optimal passive solar strategy that maximizes winter heat gain while completely blocking out the midsummer sun,” the team added.

Image of a bathroom in Fifty-Acre Wood
Windows were randomly placed on the walls

The house also has three skylights that open and close, allowing hot air to escape. At night, the boxes are lit by electric lights.

Beyond the main house, the team have created a guesthouse to the west, which provides a level of separation and privacy for overnight visitors, including Yuko’s parents from Japan.

Image of a home study space
A sculptural fireplace is framed by a square window

To the north is a two-stall garage and the “barn” which is a multipurpose space for recreation and storage. The buildings are accessed by cobbled walkways that surround the courtyard.

“Exterior walkways surround the interior courtyard strewn with native vegetation – a microcosm and a counterpoint to the larger landscape restoration project,” the team said.

An overhanging roof provides shade for the house
The house has been fitted with a number of environmental and green systems

Other projects of Salmela Architect include a house for a physicist and an ophthalmologist which is supposed to look like a “scientific instrument with several viewing openings” and a solar-powered house which was created for a professor of architecture.

The photograph is by Corey Gaffer.


Project credits:

Architect: Salmela Architect
Team: David Salmela (principal), Kai Salmela (design manager), Emre Erenler
Energy consultant: Malini Srivastava
Structural engineer: Meyer borgman johnson
Service provider: Cates Fine Houses


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