Spinning Gold: Alchemy Architects’ designs prove that small really is beautiful

 

By Kristal Leebrick

In the back of the red brick building at 856 Raymond Ave. in the heart of St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ), a small group of architects and designers are not unlike their medieval namesakes who tried to spin common metals into gold. Alchemy Architects takes some of today’s building concepts (think efficiency, sustainability and prefabrication) and turns them into international accolades that include whimsical, quirky and often thought provoking.

Geoffrey Warner, principal architect and founder of Alchemy, says the company’s name describes the kind of work he and his team—Bryan Carpenter, Andrew Blaisdell, and interns Chris Massey and Austin Young—want to do: “take a bunch of ordinary materials, add some quasi-science and magic, and the result is (hopefully) pure gold.” 

Alchemy got a taste of that gold in 2003 after building a 350-square-foot off-grid dwelling for Minnesota Orchestra violinist Stephanie Arado near Lake Pepin, Wis. Dubbed the weeHouse, materials for the tiny building included Douglas Fir, customized IKEA built-in cabinetry and fibercement siding—all built in-factory by Warner and a team of craftsmen (including fellow CEZ artisans Scott McGlasson and Lucas Alm) and delivered to the site on the back of a semi-trailer. That home, now moved to Arado’s backyard in Minneapolis, was the first of a long line of weeHouses built for clients throughout the country. 

“We’ve been fussing with that formula over the last dozen years,” Warner says.    

You can see the work of Warner and his crew when they open Alchemy Architects’ doors on Thursday, Feb. 25, from 5 to 8 p.m., for the CEZ’s second monthly We Make It Here mixer. You’ll know you’re

in the right place when you see the “Historic Site” sign over the loading dock and the repurposed road signs covering the office walls. (“We did salvage before salvage was cool,” Warner says.) 

The monthly mixers are part of the CEZ Action Committee’s efforts to shine a light and support the creative work that happens here. The mixers are open to the public.

Alchemy’s weeHouse prefab system has become an icon for small-scale sustainable living, but the bulk of the company’s work includes new builds, remodels and general design consultation for both residential and business clients. Alchemy designed CEZ neighbor Bang Brewing Co.’s brewery and taproom just a few blocks away at 2320 Capp Road. Using a “prefab” grain bin and salvaged wood, the structure reflects the sustainability and environmental impact of Bang, the first 100 percent organic brewery in the Midwest.      

Alchemy’s Blair Barn House in Blair, Wis., and the innovative façade created for Specs Optical in Uptown Minneapolis have earned National Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects. The group also boasts some interesting clients, including Apple’s head architect, Ross Perot’s daughter and actor Shia LaBeouf. 

They built Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) director Kaywin Feldman’s Linden Hills weeHouse in Minneapolis in 2012, and that project created a friendship that’s helping Alchemy with one of its latest projects: the lightHouse. Feldman’s been instrumental in advising on the one-room hotel built out of a 20-foot shipping container that will debut at Mia in the spring. Warner hopes to see the lightHouse travel over the next year and a half to cultural events in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where people will be able to rent it for a night whether at Mia, or during the summer Northern Spark festival, or next year’s U.S. Pond Hockey Championships at Lake Nokomis.  

The lightHouse is being built with the help of architectural students at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design and will feature a queen-size bed, a composting toilet, a greywater shower, solar panels and a porch at the entrance with a sitting area surrounded by water-filtering plants. It’s “a postcard for sustainability in the Twin Cities,” Warner says. “We’re hoping to start at Mia in May,” that is, after they traverse the complicated permitting processes in both cities.     

“Just having [Feldman] say ‘we think this is cool’ starts giving other people the idea that a thing is serious,” Warner says.   

That kind of collaboration has also come into play in the CEZ as Alchemy works with St. Paul officials to get permits for the lightHouse. Warner says the CEZ has raised the profile of the creative industries and businesses in this hub, which radiates out from Raymond and University to Interstate 94 on the south, Prior Avenue on the east, north to Energy Park Drive, and west to Minneapolis.    

“St. Paul leaders have noticed. They get the context about [the work being done in the area] and it’s working,” he says. “All sorts of creative people are moving in. It’s wonderful to have neighbors and people near that you are excited to work with.”    

You’ll get to learn more about Alchemy at the Feb. 25 mixer and at the Minneapolis Home and Garden Show Feb. 26-28 and March 4-6, where three pieces of the firm’s work will be on display as the show’s 2016 Idea House: a 988-square-foot Barn House and Smart Core and a 300-square-foot accessory dwelling unit, also dubbed the lightHouse, made from energy-efficient structural insulated panels, or SIPs.      

“Light on the land, light on the earth,” Warner says in explaining the concept of the lightHouse. “It’s a beacon for sustainability.”

 

Join us for Thursday, Feb. 25, from 5 to 8 p.m at Alchemy Architect's office, 856 Raymond. Take a peek in their space, learn about their work, and meet folks in the Creative Entreprise Zone. Event is open to all.
      
Kristal Leebrick is a St. Paul writer and editor of the Park Bugle, the monthly, nonprofit community newspaper for the CEZ and the St. Anthony Park neighborhood.