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Published August 14 2010

Eddy Court home reflects couple’s modern-industrial aesthetic

Mitch Hoffart and Karen Olson didn’t want a conventional house.

The Fargo couple felt no need to have a front coat closet, a three-car garage or any of the other “gotta have” trappings of a contemporary Midwestern home.

Instead, their modern abode stands out like a Cubist sculpture among all the Dutch Colonial, Colonial Revival and Prairie/Foursquare homes found in the early 20th-century neighborhood of Eddy Court.

“It’s got a lot of volume but the footprint really isn’t that big,” says Hoffart of their 1,925-square-foot home, characterized by asymmetrical window placement and dramatic angles.

The house is so unique that it’s hard to find the right words to describe it. Architect Phil Stahl uses phrases like “industrial modern,” “abstract vernacular” and “critical regionalism.”

The latter refers to familiar regional structures which are rearranged in a new, yet still recognizable, way.

And so, as modern as the house seems, it actually was inspired by agrarian themes. The red corrugated metal pays homage to old barns. The mono-pitch roof is reminiscent of a lean-to shed or chicken coop. Even the lawn – seeded with gray-headed coneflowers, wild bergamot and yarrow – is an ode to the prairie.

The home reflects Hoffart’s own work. By day he’s a telecommunications tech at the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, but he’s also a talented artist. Inspired by his rural roots growing up in Rugby, N.D., he uses bold, modern colors and semi-abstract forms to paint agricultural images, wildlife and nostalgic themes.

Likewise, the Hoffart-Olson home is raw, industrial and modern, although the vibe of the interior is warm, even homey. That’s partly because the metal and concrete finishes are offset by plenty of unfinished Douglas fir beams, Hoffart’s vibrant artwork and a warm, gold-tinged color scheme.

“Everything is so different, (the house) is almost a work of art in itself,” Stahl says.

The home has been awarded the American Institute of Architects North Dakota design excellence award, been featured on HGTV and in Dwell magazine, and been toured by four internationally known architects. “They’ve appreciated the fact that great design can happen anywhere,” Stahl says.

Raw, industrial style

That’s not to say everyone has appreciated it. Some neighbors complained that the house didn’t meet the architectural style of the neighborhood, Stahl says.

Stahl’s response was that Eddy Court doesn’t have just one style. “In fact, the two-three block radius contains all the architectural styles, including modernism,”

he says. “The city fully supported the architectural diversity during the process. We took care to size the house right to fit the sizes of the other homes.”

Unfortunately, the eclectic charm of the Eddy Court area had been tarnished in the last few decades by several rundown rental properties and drug houses. When the city of Fargo offered low-interest loans and other financial incentives to homeowners to rehabilitate distressed properties, Hoffart and Olson decided to participate in the program. They received a $20,000 discount on the lot at 330 Eddy Court, which held two small, hopelessly run-down bungalows.

The old homes were razed, and construction began on the new home in spring 2004. From the get-go, Stahl knew the couple wouldn’t want conventional digs.

Familiar with Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House,” they wanted a space that was small, simple and efficiently planned. They didn’t need the extra space or the potential water problems from a basement. And they didn’t entertain frequently, so details like many guest bedrooms or even a front coat closet seemed expendable.

“They told me they were interested in the unexpected,” Stahl says.

That included a very open floor plan and a clean, industrial style. Ironically, it took a lot of deliberate planning to make a living space look raw yet still appealing.

The floors are heated concrete. Many of the ceilings are galvanized sheet metal, divided by exposed wooden beams. Uncovered spiral ductwork adds architectural interest throughout. Light fixtures are utilitarian: either industrial caged-glass jar lights or bare mirror bulbs in ceramic keyless sockets.

In the interest of being green and fiscally responsible, the couple stuck to locally purchased materials. They also bought Earth-friendly materials like Homasote panels, which are made from recycled newspapers, as ceiling tiles.

In keeping with the shopworn aesthetic, many of their furnishings were purchased at NDSU’s monthly surplus sale.

One of their finds there was a utilitarian steel table. When admiring it, they overheard another potential buyer commenting that “it would be good for butchering deer.” Today, it serves a much more refined purpose: They outfitted it with casters and a maple top, transforming it into their living-room coffee table.

Smart use of space

The twosome also wanted to make the best use of space possible.

The living room and attached kitchen aren’t all that large, although the 30-foot-high ceilings make them seem spacious. They’ve incorporated space-saving features throughout the home, including sliding barn doors and a lofted library space above Hoffart’s art studio and their master bedroom. Stahl also helped design a Murphy bed, so Olson’s workroom can easily double as a guest room.

Another interesting feature in the workroom is an adjoining “tornado room,” built in lieu of a basement. Its three walls are made of rebar-reinforced concrete; the entry door is insulated steel with three dead bolt locks.

“It could withstand a hit from a 2-by-4 shot out of a cannon and not get knocked off its hinges or locks,” Stahl says.

Quirky touches throughout keep the home from seeming too cold or sterile. Olson, a public information specialist for the North Dakota State Data Center, insisted on a ginger wall color to warm up the interior. She used to collect antiques, and a few of her favorite pieces have been incorporated into their modern surroundings. There’s a heavy claw-foot table in the dining area and an oak Hoosier cabinet that looks curiously at home beneath the sleek cable-and-steel staircase.

Around the corner, the kitchen is one of the favorite spots for Hoffart, who loves to cook. The cupboards and pull-out pantry doors are finished in a light maple with modern nickel hardware. The cabinet installer balked at the couple’s choice of stainless steel countertops; he said they scratched too easily and the couple wouldn’t like them.

But Hoffart is glad he insisted. He believes the countertop’s nicks and abrasions add to the metal’s patina and fits right in with their home’s artistically distressed charm.

Even Hoffart’s home studio is a work of art.

The walls of the second-floor space are made of translucent plexiglass.

“In the evenings, when you turn all the lights on up there and keep it dark downstairs, it offers this really nice glow,” Olson says.

For her part, Olson loves the look of their one-of-a-kind home, although she occasionally longs for the charm of an old house.

“I’m torn. I love the look of the modern, but I love the feel of the old,” she says. “I do enjoy it, but there are times when I think it would be nice to have carpet.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525