Alchemy Architects: Live Large in a Smaller Space
With the heavy emphasis on green living in today’s housing market, many homeowners and designers are constantly looking for ways to reduce a home’s environmental footprint. For Alchemy Architects, founded by Geoffrey Warner, the solution is simple: “the greenest square foot is the one you don’t build.”
Fueled by this philosophy, Alchemy has received international recognition for their custom-designed weeHouses, prefabricated homes that are designed for maximum efficiency within smaller spaces. Warner’s first weeHouse debuted in 2003 and has been considered a source of inspiration and “architectural optimism” for people who are looking to live large without a massive floor plan.
Alchemy’s weeHouses are located across the country, each a unique piece of architectural art. Made out of stackable “modules,” many weeHouses are the size of a studio or one-bedroom apartment, but several “not-so-wee” projects range between 1800 and 2000 square feet. These permanent, long-lasting dwellings are custom designed to include high-quality finishes, provide full amenities, and incorporate repurposed or recycled materials. And the countless options for customization on weeHouses guarantee that each project is unique and perfectly tailored to meet the owner’s needs.
Alchemy projects like weeHouses, BarnHouses, or Accessory Dwelling Units are created using a process called modular building, where large portions or sections of the home are constructed in a factory and then are delivered and assembled onsite. According to Betsy Gabler (Alchemy’s business development director), the benefits of building in a weather-controlled factory are significant: “Alchemy can deliver a high-quality, energy-efficient, architecturally designed home at an affordable price. Building indoors allows for an ‘always perfect’ building environment, leading to less material damage, less moisture infiltration, better sealant adhesion, and more reliable scheduling.”
In addition to taking advantage of a consistent working environment, people who work with Alchemy benefit from their hands-on, playful design process and their “tightwad panache” aesthetic. Gabler notes that the architectural team “draws inspiration from art, literature, history, and leading creative thinkers to create alternative and atypical project solutions.” Such inspiration allows for a multitude of design options for any lifestyle, no matter how much space is needed. The following options are sure to have you thinking outside of the brick-and-mortar.
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)
Alchemy is hoping to make a big impact with their most recent endeavor called Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). These self-contained living units include a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom — all within 300 square feet. Alchemy designer Andrew Blaisdell believes that ADUs have the potential to get more people living in urban areas without building more condos or cheap apartment buildings.
The Accessory Dwelling Units are the result of an art piece developed by Alchemy’s founder, Geoffrey Warner. The lightHouse served as both an experiment in building the tiny dwellings and continues to be a “mobile educational moment” that raises awareness about the possibilities of ADU living. Initially displayed at Northern Spark, the lightHouse is making its way to various locations around the Twin Cities and will attend the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival and the Minnesota State Fair.
While the lightHouse serves as a spark for inspiration and possibility, Alchemy used this prototype to learn what works (and what doesn’t) for their official Accessory Dwelling Units. Most notably, they determined that building an ADU within a shipping container (like the lightHouse) is not the best option. Blaisdell adds, “We wanted the experience of building in a shipping container, but we will probably never do that again!” Instead, the ADU design uses Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) to create the structure.
Building the prototype also allowed the architects to test out the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the dwelling. Blaisdell recalls the vast amount of research on the ADU’s mechanical systems, and notes that this research and hands-on testing is how architects educate themselves. The result of these efforts is a highly sustainable unit that is built to last.
Thanks to recent laws passed by the city of Minneapolis, ADUs between 300-800 square feet are allowed on city lots with pre-existing family homes, making them great rental spaces, havens for in-laws, or student housing. The units hook up directly to the existing infrastructure of the area, providing the space with electricity, sewage, and water.
Unlike Alchemy’s other custom-built projects, the ADUs are intended to be “ready-to-go” units that follow a fixed design and aesthetic. The unit is designed to be modern, clean, and straightforward while incorporating natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows and using the same high quality finishes that appear in previous Alchemy projects. The units are delivered as a flat pack of parts and panels that a contractor (or a handy homeowner) can assemble.
Alchemy intends their new design to start at a base price of $70,000 for standard finishes and materials, but ADU owners will be able to upgrade if desired. In this early stage of the project, construction is currently estimated to take six months, but the team hopes to shorten the timeline to three months as time goes on. The reasonable time frame and affordability is sure to appeal to people seeking to live efficiently and conscientiously.
People who want more space or who want to add a more rustic touch to Alchemy’s modern aesthetic may want to consider the BarnHouse model. True to its name, the BarnHouse is inspired by traditional barn structures, and consists of an outer shell surrounding a utility core and “free-flowing forms” that create various rooms.
Alchemy describes the aesthetic of the BarnHouse as “modern, honest, and clean.” Designer Bryan Carpenter adds, “We like the directness and simplicity of a barn’s structural shape and approach, coupled with its regional relevance.” This regional relevance adds an attractive dose of familiarity to the structure, which Carpenter notes becomes even more excited when the expectations of the structure are tweaked — “the familiar with a refreshing new twist!”
The most significant “twist” comes with how the internal space is designed. Because the external shell of a BarnHouse is an economical choice, a higher percentage of a homeowner’s budget can go toward high-end interior finishes, treatments, and details. IKEA kitchen cabinets are a top choice due to their quality, and high efficiency appliances allow for the home to have a more conscious footprint.
Alchemy’s most recent BarnHouse is nestled in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. Owned by two graphic designers, this BarnHouse was strongly inspired by the couple’s own aesthetic, which Carpenter describes as “stylistically simple, with clean lines and a limited palate of materials so it all works cohesively together.” Interior barn wood adds an element of character and provides an interesting balance to the industrial aesthetic of raw steel elements such as the steel stairwell.
The couple also incorporated several “graphic qualities” to their new home, such as painting the doors a vibrant blue. And the bright metallic color of the steel garage (built from a “pack” by the owners and their friends, like an old-fashioned barn raising!) plays off the dark house. These bold elements make the three-bedroom, three-bathroom house pop with personality and style, making this BarnHouse truly magical.
Alchemy Architects can help anyone develop a conscious, efficient, and exciting living space for their needs. With endless design possibilities, Alchemy can fit all your big dreams into a smaller footprint. To start planning your own architect-designed home or to keep track of the touring lightHouse, visit www.weehouse.com.