Moving to a Simpler Life

A builder and his wife collaborate with SALA Architects on their "Isanti Shanty"

The exterior of a home built by SALA Architects features a patio with the home's owners lounging on it.
Annie and Stephen Roche enjoy a simpler life on the cantilevered deck of their new home. (Troy Thies)

Stephen and Annie Roche had two things in mind when they began looking for lake property: retirement and downsizing. Their kids had grown up and left the nest. Their house in Corcoran seemed too big for just two people. And while business was strong at the building company they ran, Stephen and Annie were also beginning to think about spending fewer hours working at the office and more time relaxing at home.

“We wanted a place where we could be outdoors and put up birdhouses,” Stephen says. “We wanted a place where we would have breathing room.”

By trade, Stephen is a builder, founder of Showcase Renovation and Showcase Carpentry, and partner with Kevin Kish in the former. He intended to construct the house himself, but experience had taught him that an architect’s eye was invaluable when it came to designing an elegant and efficiently planned residence. Once he and Annie had purchased a lot on Blue Lake in Isanti County, midway between Minneapolis and St. Cloud, Stephen called SALA Architects, a firm he had often partnered with over the years. He and Annie admired the work of SALA principal Bryan Anderson and wanted him to create a place where they could spend the relaxing retirement they envisioned.

Anderson liked the idea of working with a client who knew the ins and outs of construction. Design development and construction bids usually happen in succession, but in this case, the architect and builder could make decisions on the fly, resulting in fewer changes and course corrections based on budget as the project proceeded. “We could also communicate in a kind of shorthand,” Anderson says. “I could provide a sketch and talk with the client about it and that was enough. I didn’t have to document the idea with a visual graphic so a builder could put in a bid.”

A sunken living room in a home built by SALA Architects.
The cushioned banquette divides the dining area and the sunken living room. (Troy Thies)

Design-wise, the Roches had a short list of priorities. The house didn’t need to be big, but Stephen needed a large garage for his truck and wanted a spacious portico for gardening tools and equipment. He also liked the look of roofs with large overhangs. Annie brought a stack of favorite images ripped from the pages of design magazines to the couple’s first meeting with Anderson: She wanted a sunken living room—a feature she had seen on the hit TV series Mad Men—and clerestory windows that would allow daylight to filter into the house from above.

Anderson began experimenting with ways to integrate all the ideas into a single plan. Initially, he proposed a detached garage, but the couple didn’t like the idea of dashing through the rain or mushing through snow to get from the house to their vehicles. Instead, he placed the attached garage and shed at a 90-degree angle to the modestly sized house.

A screened in porch in a home built by SALA Architects looks out to a forest and wildlife.
A screened-in porch, tucked beneath the broad sloping roof, is another place to enjoy the woods and wild life. (Troy Thies)

The result is 1,300 square feet on the main floor (800 more in the basement) that feels spacious yet intimate. Sited on a slope, the home features a walkout basement on the back side and a front entrance at ground level. The entry door is beneath a quartet of clerestory windows, and the entire structure, including a screened-in porch and the garage, is sheltered under the wings of a broad sloped roof. The varying pitches of the roof recall a lean-to structure, which led the Roches to nickname their new home the “Isanti Shanty.”

The exterior of a home built by SALA Architects.
The Roches nicknamed the house the “Isanti Shanty” because the roof line reminded them of a lean-to. (Troy Thies)

Simple materials were used in much of the construction. The exterior is a mix of painted bevel siding and cedar-board and random batten vertical siding. The Roches opted for a standing-seam metal roof, despite its higher cost compared to traditional shingles. Bleached cedar fencing runs along the front of the residence, lending additional privacy to the screened-in porch on the side of the house. Integrity doors and windows were used throughout. On the back side, a small deck with cable railing cantilevers toward the lake.

“The shape of the house is fairly straightforward,” Anderson says. “That raised the question: How do you make an economical shape interesting on the inside?”

A kitchen built by SALA Architects with clerestory windows, high ceilings, and walnut cabinets.
Clerestory windows, high ceilings, and walnut cabinets add interest and contrast to the main floor. (Troy Thies)

The clerestory concept certainly added interest. The main entry opens into a high-ceilinged central room that houses a kitchen, dining area, and Annie’s coveted sunken living room, whose floor is a foot lower than the rest of the house, creating a “conversation pit” beside a gas fireplace. A cushioned banquette serves as a partition between the dining and living areas, but also functions as a spot to curl up with a mug of hot coffee and a good book. Rift-and-quartered white oak floors and a painted-wood ceiling keep the main interior bright, while walnut cabinets add visual interest, color, and texture. Ample use of east-facing windows, along with the light from the clerestory windows, ensures that the interior space is bright even on the cloudiest days. A study area with a built-in desk and shelves includes a tiny strategically placed window that provides views of anyone approaching the house. Other unique details include a frosted-glass partition that allows light to filter between the kitchen and master bath, and upward-pointing LEDs hidden in the rafters of the central space that illuminate it at night.

A study with built-in desk and bookcases in a home built by SALA Architects.
A compact study off the living room has a built-in desk and bookcases. (Troy Thies)

Anderson says the project was particularly fun because the client was also the contractor, able to perfectly execute the ideas they hatched  without having to draw out all the details. “If they liked an idea, they were going to make it happen,” he says. “I didn’t have to be that involved in every little thing. They had the expertise, and they have great taste. So, I knew it would all come together in an amazing way.”

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