Small & Sustainable Studio

Studio living above a garage allows a family time to grow and plan their future home

Photos by Alyssa Lee

The intimate upper level of this compact studio is the perfect place to cozy up on a snowy winter day. The structure’s A-Frame architecture makes for a modern silhouette on the property.

The homeowners of this small central Minnesota structure had been planning on a big new house that overlooked a bend in the river with mature oak trees at the back of the lot. Then came the pandemic, along with a new sense of unease. “I’ve always romanticized tiny homes and tiny house living,” recalls the homeowner. “I asked my husband, ‘What if we did something crazy? What if we built small so we can lean into the things we really care about right now? Being with family, traveling, and spending most of our time outdoors?’”

The young professional couple shared their plans—24 well-designed pages complete with a wish list, annotated inspiration images, and even a table of contents—with architect Christopher Strom and his team at Christopher Strom Architects. “It was the most impressive, robust planning document we had ever seen,” Strom says. “That was good for us, and we got excited about the gorgeous site.”

Together, the clients and team—including Christopher Strom Architects, John Kraemer & Sons, and InUnison Design—decided to wait on the main house. Instead, they transformed the planned two-car garage’s upper-level guest quarters into the couple’s compact studio apartment, designed a sun-filled conservatory for plants and pottery on the first level, and connected the two floors with an expressive staircase that would eventually lead to the lower level of the future house.

“The stairwell is a major design element in the home,” Strom says. The steel staircase greets visitors at the front entry and will “click into place” with the main house, he explains. A future hallway at the base of the stairs is currently a crawl space constructed of concrete masonry units. While the rest of the foundation is poured concrete, those concrete blocks can be knocked out when the larger house is complete to connect the buildings.

The artful staircase shows off a colorful vinyl wall covering.

While unique architectural lighting and stair treads illuminate the staircase in the evenings for safety, a custom Italian vinyl wall covering creates striking color effects. “Staircases are often a forgotten design element,” says InUnison Design’s Christine Frisk, who collaborated with colleague Jessica Tschida on the project. “But Christopher’s team created a stunning staircase, and as you move through the space, the wall covering’s colors shift, creating an ethereal experience.”

Additionally, the house is entirely electric, with mini splits providing heating and cooling. The structure’s gable ends and exterior siding are a low-maintenance composite wood material, and the metal roof helps shed snow in the winter.

Strom tucked the 500-square-foot, loft-like living space under the eaves. In the kitchen, light teal cabinets with crisp black countertops line a window wall with views of the river. The windows throughout are finished with Douglas fir and a custom stain by Bespoke Finish that allows the grain to show through. In the bathroom, bubble-like portholes in the shower frame river views—the lowest, smallest one designed for the couple’s young son.

The lower-level conservatory features plenty of plants and a complementary green tile wall.

The lower-level conservatory has comfy seating, lots of plants, and the homeowner’s potter’s wheel. One wall is completely tiled in earthen tones, with some niched to hold air plants. The porcelain tile floors can be easily hosed down and don’t stain or discolor. “I’m so happy we were able to sneak in a little space for plants and pottery,” says the homeowner. “I love the design and the large windows to the river.”

Even with a dog and a toddler, the tiny home “is super sustainable. It’s really lovely,” the homeowner continues. “We wanted to go small, to get to know our son, consider what we want and treasure, and figure out what we really need in a future house. Because we have beautiful high ceilings with windows that let in perfect light, our living spaces don’t feel too small. We have what we need and love for now.” She adds, laughing, “I’d like to think we could do one more kid in here.”

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