Design Solutions: Crafts Zen Style

Mantis Design + Build remakes a Craftsman exterior into an urban sanctuary influenced by Asian architecture.

authors Kyle Clapham | August 6, 2021

Inspired by their many travels to Southeast Asia, the owners of a 1924 Craftsman bungalow in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wanted to create a welcoming entrance. They sought to emphasize a modern, global Craftsman theme that feels balanced and honors its traditional roots in Japanese architecture. Incorporating these stylistic elements would give their simple bungalow a new life.

“Here in Minnesota, there’s a lot of homes that are very underwhelming—you walk through the porch, or the door is on the side, and it’s an underwhelming entry,” says Paul Linnebach, owner and creative director of Mantis Design + Build. “The old house had just a couple of steps. There was a door, but there was no real interest. It was terribly outdated; everything was falling apart.”

The family of five also loathed their dungeon of a basement, which featured a 7-foot ceiling with ductwork that hung down below. Years of soil pressure, furthermore, compromised the walls and required an excavation of the entire lower level. The company would need to raise the roof to lift the home and dig a little deeper to produce a taller basement, as well as a more stable foundation.

Big Transformation

The clients had enough budget to pursue either the interior or exterior renovation, but they could not complete both projects at the same time. Wrapping the new exterior and protecting the house from the elements began as their priority and, over time, more funds became available to start the interior work. In fact, the larger remodel inside the house helped produce an updated look outside.

“When we set [the home] back down, we actually added a couple of extra feet,” Linnebach says. “We dug down a little bit deeper and went up a little bit higher, so they have a 9-foot ceiling in the basement now that feels open and expansive. The backyard is a full walkout, whereas before it was sloped and unusable. We terraced the back and created a proper patio area for gatherings.

“Their previous experience was walking out of this little back porch that was about to fall over, and there just wasn’t any place to invite guests over and have a setting they could celebrate life with a good meal and good conversation,” he adds. “That was one of the biggest transformations for their quality of life—to [be able to] gather in a beautiful backyard with friends with family.”

After raising the house on steel beams and blocking, the company excavated enough of the dirt and used that to grade straight out and level off the backyard. Another terrace behind the garage flows down into a flat area with a vegetable garden and a shed beyond it. The excavation did not unfold as smoothly as expected, however, because of the weight from all the plaster in the home.

“The steel beams bent enough from the weight of the home to where the majority of the plaster on the main level cracked,” Linnebach explains. “With it being so stiff, the slight curvature of the beam from the weight of lifting was enough to crack the plaster throughout the main floor. We were told that it might have some cracking, but we weren’t expecting significant cracking.”

Once the plaster had been fixed, the company outfitted the basement with new drain tile, spray-foam insulation, wiring, plumbing and other “heavy aspects” of a house, he says. Although the renovated lower level did not factor into its gold award in the 2020 Qualified Remodeler Master Design Awards, the remodeled space set the stage for an exceptional exterior facelift.

Beautiful Balance

The homeowners wanted to expand the portico, so it feels more like the entrance to a temple and gives people the sense of setting foot in a sacred space. “The home is a very sacred place—it’s a sanctuary—and you’re crossing that threshold of the home and finding out what is the deepest meaning of home,” Linnebach notes. “It’s a place of safety, honesty, nurturing and rejuvenation.”

Inspired by Asian architecture, their new timber-framed entry incorporates graceful cuts of cedar wood and steps formed from Indiana limestone that are concrete-stamped with a slate imprint. A new copper entry light was custom-made by a Balinese artisan, and two copper rain chains hang from the front corners of the portico, guiding the cascading water from the roof into stone basins.

Traditionally used as decorative downspouts for temples and homes, the Japanese design of rain chains and stone perfectly combines form and function. The stone basins channel the water into a hidden, underground drainage system that runs through the back of the house. Bordered by half-round copper gutters and downspouts, the new roof perimeter brings a touch of old-world charm.

“Part of the way I love to design is blending the elements—the wood, stone, concrete and metal,” Linnebach says. “I love the little touches and how they all come back together on the rain chain, that metal element. It’s creating a beautiful balance between the different materials. How do you make a traditional American Craftsman feel more global—Southeast Asian—and modernize it?”

The clients set out to integrate as many natural elements as possible, namely wood, water, stone and light. Whereas most lap siding is installed in even rows, the company thought that it would be too harsh for this home. A response to the Industrial Revolution, the Craftsman aesthetic stresses artisanship, which led to a more organic siding pattern that is both randomly structured and cohesive.

Using various sizes of fiber cement helps mimic the natural sediment layers of earth, Linnebach explains. “Each one of those are overlapped in such a way that it doesn’t push out the one above it at an angle; so even though those aren’t random, they look very random. There’s no consistent pattern, but there’s a design behind the placement of it all that allows for a good, solid overlap.”

The company employed all-natural cedar wood on the bump-out in the back as well as the front portico, offering a splash of color and textural contrast. Decorative rough-sawn cedar brackets at the roofline build visual interest above while custom-finished trim boards mimic real wood. The steel garage door has a color-matched look, and woodgrain imprints soften the exterior chimney.

Peace of Mind

Similar to the lap siding, varying shapes and sizes of new windows were installed on the lower level in slightly random but carefully placed locations, so they would feel organic. The windows offer a unique perspective of illumination to the interior and gracefully connect it to the exterior. Laying up stone presented a challenge because of the small dimensions of each individual piece.

“They’re 6 or 7 inches long and a couple inches deep, and they’re all individually cut slate. And that slate has been stacked one by one,” Linnebach says. A stone flowerpot the family brought back from Bali inspired the design. “It takes significant time to mortar each one of those in a way that still keeps it looking like a dry stack stone. It’s probably the equivalent of laying the bricks for an entire commercial building. It was a labor of love; my masons almost wanted to kill me.”

The masons installed one foot at a time to maintain the integrity of the wall while the mortar set. Taking a naturally hard surface such as stone and making it feel elegant, soft and flowing turned out to be well worth all the hard work that went into the detail. “Most natural stone has a lot of roughness about it. What I like about the way this stuff is cut is it feels more elegant and organic.

“It’s kind of mesmerizing,” he adds. “Everybody comes over, and they just stare at that thing for like 10 minutes; they’re trying to wrap their heads around it because they haven’t seen anything like it before. We thought [since they were] little stones, they’re going to lay flat quicker, and it should go quickly. But it ended up costing twice as much from a labor standpoint to manage it.”

The stonework wraps around the house and accentuates the front entry, which has gone from an underwhelming feature to a true statement. “Everybody comes through that door, and we wanted to really feel like the home was just saying welcome into this urban sanctuary. From the moment they get out of the car, they feel like they’re walking into a little urban temple,” Linnebach notes.

“It’s also great knowing what’s behind the siding and the stone. Everything is properly built, and they’re not worried about bugs and insects or the weather elements getting inside anymore,” he continues. “Everything’s sealed really well, so there’s a peace of mind that comes from that too.” QR

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