Architect Charles Stinson Creates a Home for His Family With Stunning Results

When Karen Stinson and Lee Larson began thinking about building a home for retirement, the couple knew the process would involve making tough decisions. Picking a designer, though, was easy: Karen’s brother is the award-winning architect Charles Stinson.

“I always thought it would be cool to have my brother create a house for us,” Karen says. What’s more, Charles’s son Jason operates a building company. The whole project would be a family affair.

(Paul Crosby)

For years, Karen and Lee lived in a modest but comfortable house near Minneapolis’s West River Parkway, overlooking the Mississippi River. They loved the neighborhood and its proximity to St. Paul (where Lee grew up), but they also toyed with the idea of dwelling in a modern home—a place with lots of windows, a large kitchen, energy-efficient appliances, and plenty of open spaces for entertaining. So when the tiny house next to theirs went up for sale a few years ago, they snatched it up with the intention of building something new.

Entertaining friends and family is important to Karen and Lee, and from the start, Charles knew the couple needed a house where they could host groups both large and small—for dinners, pool parties, charity receptions. “We have the entire family over for supper every Friday night,” Karen says, “so we needed a table where all 16 people could sit.” In addition, they wanted an outdoor swimming pool, private offices where they could putter, and as much sustainable design incorporated into the plans as was financially possible.

Charles began drawing. But the site proved challenging: Like most urban parcels, the lot is long and narrow, and fitting all the components into the plan—the pool, a garage that met the alley—meant covering almost the entire property. Even as the scheme progressed from preliminary sketches to construction documents, there was something about the home’s scale and sprawl that didn’t sit well with the architect. “I meditate every day, and one day I realized it just wasn’t going to work unless we altered the direction completely,” Charles recalls. He changed course.

(Paul Crosby)

(Paul Crosby)

(Paul Crosby)

(Paul Crosby)

  • (Paul Crosby)

    (Paul Crosby)

    The result is a compact two-story house that the architect compares to a sailboat. You might see a resemblance to a billowing sail in the stucco S-curve that comprises the façade or in the sleekness of the overall design. But Charles uses the term to describe the tightness of the design. Cabinets are tucked under stairways. Kitchen shelves are hidden under pop-up hatches. Pressed in the right spot, a panel in the wall opens to reveal a secret space. The result is a home that feels roomier than its 3,000 square feet. “The workmanship involved is incredible,” Charles says. “Everything had to be precise down to an eighth of an inch or less.” (Karen recalls that the project manager was so concerned about the details that he sent doors back to the manufacturer for refinishing three times.)

    To accommodate social events, the main floor is almost completely open. Karen can survey the dining area, the living room, and the pool deck while standing at the kitchen sink, and Lee can check out the same scene while serving drinks at the “tiki bar” that Charles built for him. For privacy, the pair retreats upstairs, where Karen’s personal space features bamboo floors, a mirror for yoga, a treadmill, and an elliptical machine as well as a desk with a pop-up easel for watercolor painting. Lee’s office is long and narrow, like a galley kitchen, with a built-in desk for computers and paperwork, and plenty of cabinets and shelves. The master bath and bedroom overlook the pool, and the large west-facing windows allow the couple to catch the last bit of sunlight each evening.

    The home is not only elegant, it’s also designed for maximum energy efficiency. When the team determined that geothermal heating wouldn’t make sense, Jason proposed solar—and 39 solar panels were ultimately installed on the roof, capable of producing up to 10,000 watts of power. Numerous other details—from water conservation measures to proximity to public transit—helped make the home one of just two in Minnesota that meet the state’s Green Path sustainability standards.

    The new house often draws compliments from passersby for its elegant exterior, but the homeowner, architect, and builder are equally proud that its foundation—their strong family relationship—remains solid. “I have had many people ask me if it was hard working with family on a project—they often comment that they would never do that,” Karen says. “I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I knew that, by working with Charles and Jason, we had two people who were totally dedicated to giving us nothing but the best.”

    Incentives For Solar

    “We wanted to be green,” Lee Larson says of the decision he and his wife, Karen Stinson, made to install 39 solar panels on the roof of their new home. But being environmentally aware wasn’t the only consideration. Larson, a former CPA, also views the panels as an investment. “You hope that over time, some of the payout will come back.”

    The costs of installing solar power can be high (a typical 5kW system can range from $16,000-$25,000). But renewable-energy advocates say there are plenty of financial benefits that can mitigate those initial costs, including:

    ✦ Reimbursements from your local utility for installation costs

    ✦ A federal tax credit equal to 30 percent of costs, after state taxes

    ✦ Reimbursement from your local utility for excess power generation

    ✦ Sales tax and property tax exemptions for solar equipment

    Larson says he expects the system will lower energy costs over the life of the equipment—and already he’s seeing some benefits. “Instead of paying a bill to the power company, there were some times last fall when we got a check,” he says. “I expect we’ll see even more of that this summer.”

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