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The challenges of building ‘the essential house’

Daniel Yudchitz decided to design and build a small, low-cost, energy-efficient house in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. Then came the banks.

Last November, Daniel Yudchitz's modern home in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul won the prestigious AIA Minnesota Honor Award.
Photo by Bill Kelley
The Line

Daniel Yudchitz has been sketching houses for as long as he can remember. “I’ve always had an interest in unique, compact, small-space design,” he says. Last November, his modern home in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, won the prestigious AIA Minnesota Honor Award. In Architecture Minnesota, Tom Fisher, Dean of the University of Minnesota’sCollege of Design, wrote that the “house exemplifies the power of architecture to prompt urban reinvestment as well as promote new models of affordable, sustainable living.”

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Yudchitz insists the open-plan, low-cost, energy-efficient house “isn’t going to revolutionize architecture.” Still, as he worked through numerous challenges in getting approval for the small sustainable project, “I learned a lot about my own process, and how to work through design issues when you’re confronted with very real, tangible problems right in front of you.” And his major problem was getting the money to build it.

As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, Yudchitz often helped out his dad, architect Bill Yudchitz, president of Revelations Architects/Builders Corporation in Stevens Point. After receiving a BFA in Art/Industrial Design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Dan received his Masters of Architecture from the University of Minnesota. Since then, he’s been working at HGA in Minneapolis, in the firm’s Arts, Culture and Education division, doing everything from drafting to design to construction administration.

interior home photo
Photo by Bill Kelley
Yudchitz insists the open-plan, low-cost, energy-efficient
house “isn’t going to revolutionize architecture.”

One day he decided it was time to move out of his apartment, and design and build his own home. Initially, he considered rehabbing an old house. Just as Yudchitz was preparing to buy, his dad reminded him that he could build one of his own designs for the cost of rehabbing an existing house. It made sense to him. “I still sketch small houses for fun in my spare time,” he says.

Shortly thereafter, the price dropped significantly on a lot in the Rondo neighborhood that Yudchitz had been eyeing.

“A house on the parcel had been torn down in the 1970s,” he says, “so sewer and water were already in place, which simplified things. I bought the lot and moved forward from there.”

With his dad as the licensed contractor, Yudchitz built a 24-by-24-foot cube as the main volume, and a garage, which are connected via a courtyard sheltered by cedar siding. Yudchitz calls the project the “Essential House,” because of its low-cost and energy-efficient construction and open-space plan.

“It’s easy, when designing something, to keep adding,” he explains, “and before you know it, you’ve lost the essence of what you intended in the first place. I tried to stay true to the core ideas of the house.”

What the banks wanted

Staying true wasn’t always easy.

Yudchitz’s initial intention was to build a simple 1,000-square-foot house with a bedroom loft. But when he applied for a construction loan, “they couldn’t wrap their heads around the 24-foot cube,” he says. The house’s dimensions “are pretty ideal for material use and building an efficient structure,” he says. “You can build without cranes and larger structural members. And the eight-foot module is perfect for 4X8 plywood sheets.” Many of the home’s walls were constructed of three-quarter-inch birch plywood. “It’s a great balance between constructability and efficiency.”

kitchen photo
Photo by Bill Kelley
Yudchitz’s initial intention was to build a simple 1,000-square-foot house with a bedroom loft.

The bank also didn’t like the loft idea, and required the house to have two bedrooms. Since the housing bubble burst, Yudchitz says, “banks really want to be able to have a proven, marketable style of house as a commodity to turn around and sell if I can’t pay my mortgage. So I had to play within their rules.” He added a bedroom.

Sustainable? Appraisers don’t care

Nor would the appraiser recognize the house’s sustainable strategies. A 2KW photovoltaic system provides electricity. South facing windows allow for passive solar. Windows facing the other three directions are triple glazed. Exterior walls are thick with cellulose insulation. But appraisers “don’t give you any uptick for renewable energy systems or energy-efficient construction.” The appraiser also lowered the value of Yudchitz’s house because of its modern design.

Still, the neighbors enjoy Yudchitz’s house and let him know. Little kids walk by and comment, “Cool house!” One day, a group of junior high-school girls called out, “That’s a really nice door.”

“I guess they weren’t used to seeing a 12-foot-wide by eight-foot-high glass door,” he says.

house exterior photo
Photo by Bill Kelley
Yudchitz kept his neighbors in mind with his design.

A good neighbor

Yudchitz also kept his neighbors in mind with his design. The house is set back from the corner “to preserve the neighbor’s view from their house,” he explains. Similarly, the garage is a cube form, but he lowered the roof on one end to preserve that neighbor’s view. The lower roof also helps “break up the building’s massing.”

The sloping roofs on each building pour rainwater into the courtyard, which Yudchitz collects for the gardens. He clad the buildings in black metal, “so they recede into the darkness at night.”

Architect’s values versus resale values

“In my mind, this house is a good example of a project that got built and stayed true, especially in a market that’s hung up on resale value,” Yudchitz says. At the same time, he adds, “An architect’s ideas are always evolving.”

“You learn by designing and building. Finding the balance between doing the maximum with the minimum, and working within the constraints of the project for an optimal outcome, are really valuable lessons. It may not be the flashiest thing that makes the project better, but taking the limitations and using them as opportunities.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.