Photos by Hillary Ehlen
When photographer Meghan Duda and architect Regin Schwaen moved from Virginia to Fargo in 2007, they knew exactly what kind of house they wanted: one on a street with a name (as most Fargo streets are numbered), trees in the yard, a gas stove, a clawfoot tub —Meghan’s dream from childhood— and a house they could live in while they improved it. They found their ideal home near the Red River, an 800 sq. ft. house built in 1919 that needed work. With a modest budget, they began transforming it into a unique environment that combines historic remnants with sleek Scandinavian-inspired modern features.
To the south of the existing dwelling, they added a new living room dominated by large panes of recycled safety glass within a structural system of laminated veneer lumber. The exterior wall of the original house, including the old back door, still stands inside the new living room. A new kitchen extends the entire width of the house on the north side, using modified Ikea cabinets (and a gas cooktop, of course ), with a ribbon window that looks out upon the street.
Given the house’s small footprint, the stairs to the upper floor actually begin in the kitchen, with a landing at one end that allows the kitchen countertop to serve as a sitting bench. Upstairs, a new guest room dubbed “the cloud” protrudes out over the front entrance, with more large glass windows overlooking the Red River. A single steel pier in the center of the “cloud” and placed in front of the entrance to the house, supports the protruding room. In the end, they enlarged the home from 800 to 1,300 square feet – still modest in size but dramatically enhanced by what they call “architectural moments” throughout the house.
These “architectural moments” comprise of unexpected small features created for effect – window placements that offer specific views, fresh air vents as small insulated doors in the outside walls, handmade stair handrails and balustrades and elements of the 1919 house retained in unexpected places.
Inside, the remaining historic features are painted, while the new wood is stained but unpainted, leaving evident contrast between historic and modern. Outside, cedar slats cover the north and south sides, while the east and west are in corrugated steel siding, offering a dramatic interplay of materials and color.
Finally, the home is now floodproof and climate-proof. The owners installed a concrete flood wall for the foundation (this was accomplished before Fargo embarked on flood mitigation for the entire city), and they wrapped the entire historic house in foot-thick insulation, creating a house within a house, and resulting in heating bills of about $500 per year.
The “cloud house” as transformed by Duda and Schwaen celebrates the aesthetic juxtaposition of wood and concrete, historic and modern, expanse and intimacy. It truly demonstrates what the creative eye of architect and artist can achieve on a limited budget.
Paul H. Gleye is a professor of architecture at North Dakota State University. His fields of expertise include historic preservation and urban design, and he leads the architecture school’s term abroad program in Europe each spring semester.