This Old House is thrilled to partner with remodeler, designer, activist, and television personality Amy Matthews as she embarks on building her dream home: a Scandinavian-style barnhouse on a verdant farmstead in the St. Croix River Valley, located 20 minutes from downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. She’s teamed up with Chad Maack, VP of Operations at Hartman Homes, and Architect Colin Ogelsbay of D/O Architects to bring her vision to life. Here’s a peek at the progress.
Site of the 2021 TOH Idea House
Our 2021 Modern Barnhouse Idea House is located in the St. Croix River Valley. Unlike most of Minnesota which is fairly flat, here the wooded slopes, bluffs, and elevation changes make this area feel more like Vermont and less like the surrounding farmland.
Matthews purchased the property in 2017. Thanks to the evergreen-covered ridges that screen views of neighboring homes and the conservation land trust that it abuts, the 5-acre property feels more like 50.
The site has a rich history, too. Lore has it that the land was once a native American winter camp and that it became the region’s first dairy farm in the late 1800s.
A scenic spot
“There is a magical energy and beauty in this valley,” says Matthews. “The old red barn, the tall pines, and the cherry blossoms, as well as the intimacy of the entry bridge and the way the sun dances in the valley, all pulled me in.”
Like so many traditional working farmsteads, Matthews’ property is sprinkled with outbuildings—each designed for a specific task and laid out in a courtyard fashion to reduce the number of steps taken between buildings each day, thus increasing operating efficiency.
Buildings seen from left to right, as visitors enter the property from the driveway over the covered bridge, include: A workshop that Matthews plans to renovate with a guest room and bathroom in the back; a metal-roofed red barn tucked into a rise; a milk house where the original farmers stored and cooled the milk until a delivery man could pick it up; and the original farmhouse that had seen better days.
Big red vintage barn
The bright red barn, which dates back to 1892, gives the property its classic American character.
Ever wonder why barns are traditionally painted red? The first American settlers didn’t paint their barns at all. But by the late 1700s, farmers began looking for ways to protect them from the elements.
Experimenting with readily available and affordable materials, including skimmed milk, lime, red iron oxide, and linseed oil seal produced a homemade paint that they discovered was effective at killing moss and fungus growth and sealing against the weather.
An added bonus: the pretty, coppery-red color from the iron oxide absorbed the sun’s rays and warmed the barns in winter. And thus, a great American tradition was born.
The property also included an unremarkable home that had suffered a number of muddled remodels and that was plagued with persistent mold issues thanks to poor ventilation, siting, and lack of light.
Matthews and her son lived in the house for two years while planning their dream home. A backhoe made quick work of its removal in just two days—but not before any materials worth saving were donated to the local Habitat for Humanity Restore.
Culvert bridge repair
Before Matthews and her builder, Chad Maack of Hartman Homes, could bring heavy trucks onto the site, they needed to repair a small, narrow bridge that spans a 10-foot-wide culvert.
Replacing rotted ties
Explains Matthews, “The bridge is made of railroad ties, some of which were rotted. And the concrete abutments that support the bridge deck were cracked in some areas. We needed to remove and replace the rotted railroad ties, and then add additional ties to widen and strengthen the bridge deck.”
I-beam bridge reinforcement
To make sure the bridge can withstand the weight of up to 70,000 pounds for the concrete trucks that pour the foundation of the home, a steel I-beam is temporarily added beneath and perpendicular to the new railroad ties.
Steel form framework
Workers install the steel forms which will provide the framework for the poured concrete foundation walls. These will sit 48 inches below grade—several inches below the frost line—and rest on top of an 8-inch-thick concrete footing to keep the building from heaving and buckling in Minnesota’s chilly climate.
The house takes shape
The foundation forms are laid out in the shape of the 100-foot-long by 20-foot-wide home. The 14-by-15-foot wings flanking either side of the far end of the foundation will house a dining room and a family sunroom with floor-to-ceiling windows designed to provide panoramic views of the farmstead.
Once the forms have been filled with rebar-enforced concrete, they are removed. Rigid foam insulation is then affixed to the exterior and interior foundation walls.
Ready for walls
This house will be built on a concrete slab and so the foundation is filled with dirt and gravel; the earth surrounding the house is graded to ensure rainwater flows away from the foundation.