Q&A: Alchemy Architects’ Geoffrey Warner on Boxes, Barns, and Learning from Clients

A sense of playfulness and whimsy permeates the work of architect Geoffrey Warner and his St. Paul firm Alchemy. Although Alchemy’s work ranges from commercial to residential projects, its calling card for 15 years has been the weeHouse, which started with a tiny (i.e., “wee”) prefab cabin—essentially a kitted-out box—that Warner designed for a client in 2003. Before then, he’d been designing furniture and lighting, and doing bungalow renovations (including on his own home) and a project he calls a “modern farmhouse”—both of which were widely published.

A barnHouse in Minneapolis.
A 440-square-foot weeHouse outside Marfa, Texas. (Courtesy Alchemy Architects)

But the weeHouse cemented Alchemy’s reputation for progressive thinking about the luxury of less, an architecture of simplicity, and an efficient but celebratory use of materials. A modular, prefab answer for cabins, houses, offices, rooftop studios and multi-unit developments, weeHouse configurations are now scattered across the United States, and have been the subject of multiple museum exhibitions, magazine articles in national publications, and conference topics. But there’s more. Warner and his team have also designed the barnHouse, which draws from the rural vernacular; the lightHotel, a sustainable room on wheels that’s available for rent via Airbnb; and the lightHouse, a low-energy ADU (accessory dwelling unit). Since Alchemy recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, we asked Warner about his impulse to work with boxes and barns, and what’s next for the firm.

What drives your interest in these forms?

We like to work with forms and design systems that people are familiar with, hopefully making the process of working with an architect friendlier. With weeHouses, we use the iconography of the box, open on two sides, as a way of thinking about a minimalist dwelling that’s connected into the landscape via “transparent” walls. Likewise, when I say “barn,” you know what that space looks like, but the structure also conjures up ideas around hands-on work and filtered light. Both approaches provide ideas about what makes comfortable space.

A portrait of Geoffrey Warner.
Geoffrey Warner (Courtesy Alchemy Architects)

What was the iterative process that led from weeHouse to your other typologies?

Things that make weeHouse great are also limiting factors. It literally puts people in box. As soon as we tried to force-fit everything into that, we realized we needed to adapt. We’d already done a barn-like house out of SIP panels, which led to creating a typology of modest-scale homes based on rural vernacular forms and materials. We also had originally set up the weeHouse design so people could just pick their components and go, but typically clients noodle with it and come to us with combinations and add-ons we might not think of—which we love and learn from! So, the lightHouse ADU is now our click-and-pick modular system. They all support each other while addressing the different housing needs people have.

What factors led to the weeHouse becoming so popular?

Two of them are the economics and the process of making dwellings off site and shipping them to their location, mostly completed. We’re constantly refining that idea. Another was the Internet, which gave tremendous exposure to design and provided people with access to ideas like ours. Then Dwell was published, which became a voice for modernism and what we were doing. The economic downturn renewed people’s interest in sustainability and building small and responsibly.

What’s next for Alchemy?

Delivering more design! A current client wants to put a studio-size weeHouse on the roof of a 25-floor residential building in downtown St. Paul. I’ve designed it in two sections that would be lifted and delivered by helicopter. We’re also working on a 16-module rooftop development in Uptown in Minneapolis. A couple in Galveston want to open a hotel with jewel-box-like, modern, micro-rooms inside an 1880s Victorian house.

A 440-square-foot weeHouse outside Marfa, Texas.
A barnHouse in Minneapolis. (Courtesy Alchemy Architects)

We’ve also got two weeHouse projects that push the structural envelope: one in Tahoe (that can handle snow loads three times heavier than in Minneapolis) and one in the Hamptons (designed for winds of up to 140 mph). We’d also like to get into serious production mode with the lightHouse ADU, so we could respond to disaster situations in places like Santa Rosa or Houston. We’re fortunate to be working on 15 to 20 projects at a time, some of which get suspended or dropped for any number of reasons. But working on them is always really fun.

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