Case Study: Lake City House by SALA

It’s no surprise that David O’Brien Wagner, AIA, knows how to get the most out of a problematic building lot. His professional pedigree includes time at Cutler Anderson Architects and Olson Kundig in Seattle, firms known for highly specific, artful responses to site conditions and client desires. And his current firm, SALA Architects, has a distinguished history of honoring Minnesota’s craft-intensive building traditions and human-centered design. For this house on one of the more popular and proximate of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, his biggest challenge was to harness the energy and excitement of this beautiful recreational area, while still insulating its occupants from harsher aspects of the hustle and bustle.

When the clients first approached David, it was with a major remodel to a 1950s split-level house on the property. But David, proceeding with caution, decided to run some tests. “Based on another experience, I thought we should get some soil borings. We found nothing but organic soils to about 100 feet deep. That lead us to say, if we’re investing a certain amount of money, we’d better start from scratch. That way, we could make sure we had the proper piers underneath the foundation.”

Rebooting the entire project made sense on many levels. Primary was capturing the long view across the parkway and down the length of the lake—not just for one principal room, but for all the important rooms in the house. And that was the catch. The clients did not want an open plan—no massive kitchen/living/dining arena. “It was liberating,” says David, “but perplexing.”

SALA Architects

So, there was no solving the view challenge once and for all with “one big expressive space,” as David typically does for his clients. It had to be solved again and again—for the formal living room, the formal dining room, and the screened porch. Public rooms had to have the big view at the front, private rooms needed a measure of seclusion and protection at the rear. The pie-shaped lot seemed at first an impediment to the program goals, but ultimately was a facilitator. “The house unfolded as this idea that by going with the wedge shape, we could get way more exterior perimeter at the front. Lots of corners and ways of viewing out,” he explains. “And that led to the idea, what if the house was a couple of bars pushed to the edges?”

SALA Architects
SALA Architects

The other twist was a natural water channel right through the center of the property. It either needed rerouting or harnessing. David’s solution did the latter: a center “bridge” element connects the two splayed bars and serves as a view corridor for the formal dining room. “Jim Cutler did a house that was essentially a bridge. I was very inspired by that.”

David wanted to leave the bridge pristine, but Minnesota codes required him to locate the front door there. “They don’t let you put a front door on the side of the house,” he says. So, he tucked it into the bridge and designed a light connecting stair, almost like a gangplank to a floating vessel. An elevated foundation and skillful landscaping by Damon Farber, FASLA, nudges water where it needs to go.

Inside the house, rooms are layered in Douglas fir trim, both whitewashed and natural. Floors are rift and quartered oak. Structure is exposed or lightly screened. “The screen overhead in the circulation corridors and in the stairwells suggests movement,” says David. All of it carefully crafted by Mike Hartman’s team at Hartman Homes. “There was nothing about the house that was traditional,” says Mike. “David drew details that had never been done been before.”

Troy Theis Photography

But Mike is undaunted by such challenges. “We came in at the concept stage of plans. We’re not afraid to take those sketches and guestimate what it might cost. And we came in at or about what the clients were expecting.”

To hit the numbers, Mike relies on estimator Chad Maack. Says Mike, “We really had to be thinking far in advance on this job, with its level of precision. There wasn’t an outlet placed without a bunch of thought.” And that is as it should be.





Project Credits


ARCHITECT: David O’Brien Wagner, AIA, LEED AP, SALA Architects, Minneapolis

BUILDER: Mike Hartman, Hartman Homes, Inc., Hudson, Wisc.


PROJECT SIZE: 4,300 square feet

SITE SIZE: .25 acre


PHOTOGRAPHY: Troy Theis, Troy Theis Photography

Key Products


ROOFING: Certainteed, Firestone

SIDING: James Hardie Artisan

DOORS: Simpson Door Company


WALL TILE: Daltile

PAINTS AND STAINS: Sherwin-Williams, Cabot, Rubio Monocoat

CABINETRY: Legacy Cabinets



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