How to Work with a Residential Architect - Top 5 Tips

Northeast Bungalow.  See more.

Northeast Bungalow. See more.

Hiring an architect is an unusual experience. You’re hiring a guide, a facilitator, a coach, an artist, and a magician if you’re really lucky. An architect is one of the few professionals you’ll ever pay to create more work for yourself, and to (probably) make your life a little harder for a while, but together you’ll achieve results you’d never get to otherwise. Most people I’ve worked with have not only found it well worth the trouble, but it’s resulted in one of the more exhilarating experiences of their lives. Here are my best tips for how to make the most of it:

5. Banish preconceptions.

Come to the design process with as few preconceptions as possible. Start with a clean slate with your architect. You should spend some serious time talking about everything except architecture - thoughts, feelings, experiences, dreams. What keeps you up at night? What puts you to sleep? What do you think about in the shower? What you say when you talk to yourself? What do you do when you think no one is looking?

While collecting images of things you like can certainly be helpful in the process, you should use such images more as a way to describe how they make you feel rather than as specific features you’d like to see incorporated into the design. That way you develop a shared vocabulary and frame of reference with your architect. As such you're using them to help generate a design that uniquely correlates and integrates the qualities you want in your home, rather than as a collage of features cobbled together from other houses.

4. Prepare for the process.

Don’t expect an architect to come to your project with ready answers, but with a wealth of provocative and constructive questions. You need to come prepared for a journey rather than a product. Working with an architect should be understood as not only more of a commitment of time and money than working directly with a builder, but also more of an emotional commitment. You want an architect to work with you rather than for you, and you need to be prepared to be part of a collaborative team.

Island View Condo.  See more.

Island View Condo. See more.

3. Work smarter not harder.

The first thing we do with a new project is to determine how little we can do. We're far from lazy, but we find that many clients begin a project believing they need more space when what they really need is to better utilize the space they’ve got. We help them fully understand what they already have, along with its potential, before adding anything. It’s important to understand  that any additional space will shift the center of gravity of an entire house - for good or for ill. Often we’ll end up with a much smaller addition than anticipated, but one that provides just enough to effectively re-organize what’s already there, providing not just a wonderful new space, but a house that finally works.

2. Get back to basics.

Rather than blindly following trends, we start by learning the details of our clients’ lifestyle, then we shape their space around how they really live. Pandering to the latest thing all too often degenerates into a shopping expedition, distracting from the design process, which for us is as much (or more) about subtraction and reduction as it is about addition. We want to create a house for you that first does no harm; that doesn’t get in your way. We’re all surrounded with so much noise and chatter these days, a home should be a refuge from all that.

1. Be true to yourself!

“Curb appeal” is not an architectural term. A project customized to the needs of a specific client will always have more character and integrity than something created to satisfy the generic needs of the marketplace. Unless you’re extremely peculiar, that specificity will never be so far outside of the mainstream as to not be useful and delightful to another owner. And then again, if you really are that peculiar, you should by all means be living in a weird house!

Juliet Avenue.  See more.

Juliet Avenue. See more.

Ultimately the best way to bring value to your house and home is to fully own the process--be true to yourself and your needs and desires.  Don’t waste time worrying about what some phantom future buyer may want. The journey of creating a house around your unique way of life is a great adventure and privilege, and often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t blow it!

Copperwing Takes Flight

A look into the making of a micro-distillery


Many years ago, Keppen Kettering, RoehrSchmitt Architecture's interior designer and resident Revit maestra, came across one of those brew-your-own-beer kits on sale. She and her husband, Kyle, already really liked craft beer, so they picked up a kit and the adventure into DIY beverages was born. Years, recipes, and a storage-room-littered-with-gear later, Kyle was still delighted by his hobby--and Keppen was still enjoying being the taste tester. So when a friend and former co-worker came over for an afternoon at the pool and pitched a micro-distillery idea, they couldn’t get it out of their heads.


Thanks to the Surly bill passed in 2011, the craft beer biz was starting to boom in Minnesota. But not much was being done with craft spirits. That was until a similar bill was passed for distilleries 2014. Distilleries were now allowed to operate a cocktail room, along with a new provision that lowered the licensing fee significantly. The game had been changed.

But starting a distillery is complicated. So many laws! So many codes! So much regulation! Kyle and his business partners, Chis Palmisano and Brian Idelkope, spent a year on research and business planning, coming to the conclusion that starting a distillery was not only possible for them, but smart.

In 2015 the three friends formed a partnership and leased a commercial space in St. Louis Park. It didn’t take them much time to realize a cocktail room was definitely needed, and so they addressed the local zoning laws to make it all possible.

With more than a decade of experience providing commercial architectural and interior design services in a wide variety of project types, Keppen took the ideas and requirements of the partners and turned them into a real (and code compliant) thing. She collaborated with the partners to review idea boards, read up on local regulations, and brainstorm countless ideas.

Keppen’s most important role was guiding the team through the entire design and construction process.

Then she got to work on space planning, construction documentation and detailing, code compliance hurdles, furniture choices, color and materials selections. Keppen’s most important role was guiding the team through the entire design and construction process. This was no easy task for an already busy parent of a toddler with a full-time day job. To top it off, she was pregnant with their second child. Luckily, the RoehrSchmitt partners, Chris and Michael, were very supportive, lent an ear, and gave great advice whenever the inevitable hiccups arose.

The biggest challenge was the size of the cocktail room they were allowed to create. The law is written to only allow the bar space to be 25% of the total distillery, which meant a maximum of 600 square feet for the cocktail room. A glass wall separates the cocktail room from the production side, overcoming any feelings of a cramped space. It also turned out to be their biggest and best design move, offering a fully immersive experience. Guests can enjoy drinks inside the distillery, not just adjacent to one.


The space came to life with the help of some incredibly talented partners. Chris Hale and Sheila Mozayeny of SpaceCraft built out most of the space including the wood bar with custom concrete countertops, the stacked wood tiles on the walls (a Chris Hale invention), the wood bench that spans the length of the cocktail room, and the amazing copper chandelier.
Heather Doyle from the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center created the ‘jewelry’ elements in the space. She fabricated the large gears set into the concrete tops and created the beautiful copper letters inset in the front of the bar.


The gorgeous sign that shimmers over the entry is by southeast Minneapolis metal fabricator and artist George Hindley. The copper wing pattern was cut by hand, the lettering was completed using a CNC laser. The finished sign sits an impressive 4’ wide by 6’ tall.


Keppen’s favorite design element is the color-changing LED lights that wash the sparkling stills behind the glass walls. It adds a real wow-factor to the space that highlights the heart of the business in a special way.


From the start, a high-performing, flexible space that spoke to the main values of the business was the goal. They wanted something smart, hardworking, and not at all stuffy or pretentious. Copperwing should be a place guests could grab a drink before a special night out, or stop in wearing jeans and a T-shirt after a crazy day. The space is a happy mix of industrial functionality and sophisticated warm touches.

People have taken notice – this year Copperwing was awarded City Pages Best Distillery of 2018.

Copperwing Distillery

6409 Cambridge Street, St. Louis Park, MN 55426

Connect with Copperwing on Facebook and Instagram. Get details on special events, tours and classes at

Progress Report: Mercado Central

Since 1997, Mercado Central has been a collaborative hub for more than 35 Latino-owned businesses. Handcrafted products, delicious food, and essential services fill the bustling marketplace on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis.


RoehrSchmitt was asked to develop a plan focused on the market's long-term development, and the striking face lift currently in progress is the initial phase of work focused on the several buildings that comprise this landmark retail complex.

"Our objective is to clarify the internal organization and re-orient an inwardly focused building outward to the street and to the community", says principal architect Michael Roehr.

The first step is the transformation of a previously unassuming exterior with an unabashed celebration of colors evoking the Latino culture of the Mercado’s businesses. The geometric bands of rich color serve to unify a variety of disparate building elements and frame the sprawling organic mural by celebrated Venezuelan artist Pablo Kalaka that wraps the building.


Pablo's incredible work on the Mercado Central mural is well on its way and on track to be completed next month.

Perspective of Mercado.jpg

Ribbon Cutting

“I can’t get your concept out of my head!” enthused Stu Ackerberg to Michael Roehr and Chris Schmitt. Ackerberg was calling the morning after he'd met with the architects to discuss their wildly inventive yet sensibly budgeted proposal to reinvigorate the 1950’s Lake Calhoun Executive Center in Minneapolis. “I’ve been trying to get architects to show me something visionary for years, but they always give me something safe,” the CEO of Ackerberg continued, “You guys have done it!!”


What RoehrSchmitt did, with their singular enthusiasm, was propose a polymorphous, dynamic gesture that would inject the static, boxy building with color, modernity and life. “It was such a long shot, a real reach,” Roehr says of the proposal. “We never thought we’d get the project, we just went for it and were as creative and innovative as we could possibly be. We wanted to create something memorable and indelible.”

They met Ackerberg with a fully formed and articulate proposal modeled on the actual dimensions of the building. First, they would edit the ground level, two-story common area and the elevator lobbies, removing a stairway, fat drywall columns and pilasters, and “other extraneous 1980s-era bric-a-brac,” Schmitt explains, in order to “flatten and clean up the spaces, transforming them into a monochromatic white box.”

Into this fresh, clean volume they’d insert their big move: an organic, undulating, ribbon-like element of quarter-inch aluminum plate with a water-jet cut voronoi pattern that would weave through the spaces—mutating into benches, railings and placemarkers in select places—as a dynamic intervention. The ribbon would also serve as a device for wayfinding. “The idea was to create a gesture foreign to the building that becomes what it needs to be wherever it lands,” Roehr explains.


The kicker? The ribbon is orange. Moreover, before meeting Ackerberg, Roehr and Schmitt had determined the algorithm for the voronoi pattern to eliminate any repetitions. Instigated to work in dialogue with and in contrast to the existing building, the “programmatically polymorphous orange ribbon stands out but feels perfectly at home in the structure,” Schmitt says.

The ribbon and its pattern are very biomorphic,” Roehr says, “which is in marked contrast to the building with its hard, rigid geometry."


That’s not all. Roehr and Schmitt’s plan also reorients the Lake Calhoun Executive Center’s glass-clad main entrance from Excelsior Boulevard to the west. From this parking area, visitors are greeted with an existing wall mural and a sculptural steel canopy over the entrance. Now, when entering the building, visitors are immediately drawn down the hall—along a venetian plaster wall demarcating the “scar” where a stairway was removed, beyond a carpeted seating area where the ribbon morphs into a bench, past a red seating alcove across from the elevators—to glass doors opening onto a terrace overlooking historic Bde Maka Ska (aka, Lake Calhoun).

The lighting is nearly all indirect, escaping discretely from cracks along the perimeter of the spaces. Periodically, an iPad-shaped Verosol fabric screen with LEDs around the perimeter emanates a single color (red, or green, or purple), to immerse visitors in a James Turrell-esque light, and further assist with wayfinding. On the ground level, one panel divides the public elevator lobby from the back-of-house functions like office mailboxes. Dark brown doorways were covered in a light-colored, textural film.


Vending machines were moved to a former elevator shaft in a stairwell, where the beachy, blue-green tile walls are exposed and the steel railings celebrated. “Wherever we could, we had a light touch for budget reasons,” Schmitt says. “Fortunately, there were features—like the tile and railings in the stairwell, and the ceiling cutouts in the first floor elevator lobby—that really worked with the aesthetic we were after.”


On the ground level, where the vending machines were once located is now the red alcove across from the elevators, a cozy seating area with modern furnishings perfect as a waiting area or third place. To meet circulation challenges, the architects inserted a second catwalk across the volume, with a casual seating area featuring an array of blue poufs and views of Bde Maka Ska. Big, square drywall columns were removed, revealing a two-column grid that enhances light and visibility in the volume.

The installation, Schmitt says, “was like a jazz performance, with the installation guys both loving what they were doing and yet going crazy with fitting the parts together."

Meanwhile, the ribbon courses through the ground level hallway, crawling up the wall to the first level catwalks, and into the first level elevator lobby. To create the non-repeating pattern, the architects learned a new software program, determined the right algorithm, and utilized a scanner to ensure the abstractions would undulate along with the shape in space. They also created shop drawings for the fabricators. The installation, Schmitt says, “was like a jazz performance, with the installation guys both loving what they were doing and yet going crazy with fitting the parts together. They were amazing allies and perfectionists.”

“The ribbon and its pattern are very biomorphic,” Roehr says, “which is in marked contrast to the building with its hard, rigid geometry. We wanted to create something fundamentally different on a macro and micro scale. Even though the ribbon, which is metal, conveys a sense of firmness, it also moves and morphs throughout the building. And its color, which is the first one we came up with, is definitive.”


Over time, if the project moves into a second phase, Roehr adds, the ribbon could “morph into more natural materials as it continues to complement the blue sky, the blue lake and the building’s fresh, white interior.” The goal is to extend the ribbon outside the west and north entrance, Schmitt adds, “where it would create an artful canopy. Let’s hope they pull the trigger!”

See more of this project.

Light on the Budget

A renowned architect (okay, it was Le Corbusier) defined architecture as the “masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” Pretty, but upon hearing that today, most clients would wonder what you’ve been smoking, and wander off to find someone who will just design a suitable building that works within their budget. And sure, if in the end it looks pretty cool, all the better.

The Whiting Eye Clinic. See more of  this project .

The Whiting Eye Clinic. See more of this project.

But architecture cannot be reduced to any one thing, it’s a complex amalgam of systems and materials, spaces and relationships, that ultimately needs to be many things to many people. What a building means to an owner, contractor, code official, tenant, patron, or neighbor will vary widely. It’s the job of an architect to understand these spaces we make and share from as many perspectives as possible, and translate that range of perspectives, needs and desires into a project that flexibly addresses all of them.

But there is a basic truth to Le Corbusier's statement: If you’re looking to dramatically transform a space, the deft use of light will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

If you’re looking to dramatically transform a space, the deft use of light gives the biggest bang for the buck.

Early on in virtually every project, after a client has had the opportunity to roll out the laundry list of needs, wants, and as-long-as-we’re-doing-it's, we invariably come to a point where we need to have The Talk. It’s never fun, or easy, but it’s absolutely necessary. The earlier in a project you get it over with the better for everyone - and most importantly - for the success of the project.

To wit: we'll have to break the news about what you can’t afford, or at least that you can’t afford all of it, and in order to get any of it you’re going to have to make some difficult, even heart wrenching decisions. But don’t worry , this is exactly what your architect is here to help you do.

We'll winnow the scope of your project, but in a way that makes your project better. We'll talk about a budget as not simply a regrettable limitation on what’s possible, but turn that notion on it’s head and treat your budget as a design tool. A budget imposes discipline on a project and forces a rigorous evaluation of the importance of everything contributing to the project's success. When less is more, its imperative to do the most with the least.

Vietnamese Buddhist Association of Minnesota.

Vietnamese Buddhist Association of Minnesota.

This brings us back to why we’re talking about light. Lighting is one place a good designer can do a lot with a little. To begin with, for half the day it’s free. It’s like nature’s matching grant. Open this up a little here, tilt that a little there...and voilà! What might’ve been a dowdy corridor becomes a path of enchantment! What might’ve been heavy and imposing appears to be weightless and hovering on a cushion of light!

The discipline imposed by working simply with light has the greatest potential to result in something “masterly, correct and magnificent.”

After dark there's even more potential to take an average space and make it come alive with an innovative lighting strategy. And we’re not talking here about fancy light fixtures which will quickly deplete even an ample budget - just light. The most compelling lighting design will often deemphasize the fixtures themselves in favor of the light spilling from around and behind and within things; the simple contrasts; and drawing lines and silhouettes. Light can beckon from the distance, grazing and limning texture. All of this can be done with cost-effective utilitarian fixtures since they remain hidden. Even the most draconian budget has room for light and can still allow us to transform a space.

So while perhaps being the most-est with the least-est transformative weapon in the designer’s arsenal, the discipline imposed by working simply with light has the greatest potential to result in something “masterly, correct and magnificent,” and certainly pretty cool.

Grassroots Solutions. See more of  this project .

Grassroots Solutions. See more of this project.