A Residential Roofscape

An environmentally conscious couple tops off their new garage with a rooftop sauna and native prairie landscape

Photos by Corey Gaffer

On the roof of this Minneapolis home, an apiary of honey bees, native prairie landscape, and simple-yet-striking sauna structure (featuring cedar siding and views of the surrounding tree canopy) define this one-of-a-kind project.

Steffanie and Matt Musich had a wish list their city property wasn’t giving them, like solitude from bustling city life, and, well, a functioning garage to park their cars. Before they bought the corner lot just south of Minneapolis’ Lake Nokomis in 2009, a second stall was tacked to the original single-car garage, but proper footings had failed to be installed. With the slab sinking, stall flooding, door frozen shut, and structure pulling away from the house, the couple was more than ready for a redo.

The Musichs called on longtime friend Jody McGuire, a principal at SALA Architects, to head the project and design a new outdoor space to be both functional and a home for their shared hobbies. Together with Nate Tollefson, CEO, and Carl Unger, COO, of Craft Design Build, the trio built not only a beautiful three-car garage, but a breezeway atop the three-season porch that links the 972-square-foot structure to the home. While the interior is bound to impress (featuring a workshop, microbrewery, and ample storage for the couple’s bikes, cars, and Wenonah canoe), the best part of the new build is the roof—where both a sauna and native prairie landscape await.

A Simple Sauna

Through an existing second-level door, the homeowners have easy access to their personal outdoor oasis. Up a few steps and past the couple’s apiary of honey bees is a long cedar boardwalk that leads directly to a Japanese teahouse-inspired sauna.

Boasting a big roof overhang, exposed framing, and three feet of stucco, the sauna is a “modernized sensibility of old Japanese architecture,” McGuire says, specifically chosen by the couple for its simplicity, elegance, and the fond memories it brings of their travels to Japan after college graduation. Timber-framed and clad in cedar siding, the structure was finished with a charred-wood shou sugi ban technique, resulting in a driveway DIY project with just two requirements: a group of good friends and a propane torch. “Our neighbors were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re putting that on a building? And it’s supposed to be pretty?’” Steffanie recalls with a laugh.

Preparing for Plants

Surrounding the sauna and boardwalk is a native prairie landscape, designed and directed by senior project manager and landscape architect Nick Petty of Omni Ecosystems. Steffanie discovered the Chicago-based green infrastructure company through Landscape Architecture magazine, intrigued and impressed it could provide a farmable green roof that was able to sustain the diverse ecosystem she yearned for.

Petty completed his job of filling the voids left by Tollefson and Unger’s construction crew with ease, installing a curated selection of plants sourced from Landscape Alternatives, and incorporating the company’s one-of-a-kind growing media into his design.

“We engineer our own soil, and it’s more lightweight than anything on the market,” explains Petty, who used eight inches of growing media in this particular project. “Usually, you only would have been able to do four.”

Surrounded by dozens of plant and wildlife species, the Japanese teahouse-inspired sauna boasts a roof overhang, exposed framing, and charred-wood siding—achieved using a special shou sugi ban technique.

Across the 650-square-foot space is more than a dozen plant species (including palm sedge, switch, Indian, and blue joint grasses, black-eyed Susan, hairy mountain mint, nodding wild onion, and more) strategically spaced 12 inches apart to render a robust, wild look. The one-inch plugs were then broadcasted with an Omni-made seed mix of 20-plus annual and perennial species to help build the ecosystem faster, provide reliable revival after harsh winters, and minimize the need for artificial fertilizers.

But with a now-established ecosystem, the mix and distribution of plants changes with each growing season. “This is the idea of setting the table and then seeing how the plants themselves decide to organize afterward,” Petty says. “When the seed mix comes up in between [the plants], you have a concerted, amorphous planting program—kind of like a map of the Balkans. This is the wildest and most non-regulated aspect of the installation and offers a counterbalance to the accent plugs.”

Eco-Friendly Elements

Those reaping the rewards of the couple’s outdoor investment extend beyond the Musich family to 30-45 plant and wildlife species like bumblebees, butterflies, and birds. In fact, the increased biodiversity thriving in their urban roofscape is just one of the many environmental benefits Steffanie, an acting Minneapolis Park Board commissioner and water-quality advocate, planned for from the start. “If we’re going to rebuild something, we ought to do it in a way that’s going to benefit the environment,” she says.

For example, the growing media filters rainfall of its pollutants and provides insulation to the garage, but it was stormwater management that was particularly prudent to the pair after their decade of work with the Friends of Lake Nokomis (a nonprofit that encourages residents of the watershed to take action to improve water quality in the lake.) Before, water ran off their property straight into the storm system, but now, it either stays on the roof and evaporates, gets used by plants, or trickles out three scuppers off the back of the building. When the roof reaches its capacity, water starts to overflow—working its way across the owners’ bee lawn, front yard, and eventually (if any water is left to be absorbed) into the stormwater system.

“I sent [Steffanie] a message to see how the roof was performing on slowing and reducing water runoff,” Tollefson says. “She replied with a video where there was just a drip of water coming out of the scupper.”

That’s not to say the homeowners don’t feel the effects too; it’s just in a more personal and peaceful way. “When you’re on the bench, you’re not seeing the urban sprawl around you, you’re seeing the nature within,” says Steffanie, who enjoys the sauna with her husband multiple days per week. “I get to be out in nature while sitting in my yard.”

But until McGuire’s plans to create a practical place for them to pursue their dreams and hobbies came to life, it hadn’t always been that way. The garage was the perfect vehicle for that, McGuire says—so perfect, in fact, Steffanie and Matt dubbed it “Garagemahal”—perhaps for its environmental benefits, urban beauty, and, of course, beer-making abilities.

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