“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci
DEEPHAVEN — The young architects coming out of college these days don’t want to be doing what many architects end up doing — repeating the same boring commercial and residential designs of the past 20 years.
Rather, they want to do what Carly Coulson is doing — changing the world.
For example, one of her recent designs is a three-story structure that can be heated with the same amount of electricity as a hairdryer — in the subzero cold of Minnesota.
She is the same architect who designed the Streeter House in Deephaven for high-end builder Kevin Streeter. It is a home with exposed ductwork and prefabricated structures. The geometric design reveals how minimalism can create a relaxing place to call home. Less is more.
Her architectural firm is in Duluth and goes by the name Coulson. For her first job out of college, she ended up with a London firm and helped design the Gherkin — that cucumber-shaped building in London
Coulson, 43, is a 1992 graduate of Waconia High School. The family has ties to Chaska, too, because her mother works for the Goodman Group property management firm.
As a girl, she liked to spend the days in Belle Plaine drawing with her grandfather, Merle Coulson. One of her best friend’s fathers was an architectural drafter, so she was aware of the career. In 10th grade, Coulson quit sports to pursue a scholarship at a prestigious college by building a portfolio. She even took night classes on drafting at Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie.
Coulson got that scholarship. Called the Crown Scholarship, it was for a full ride for all five years of architectural study at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
“It changed the direction of my life to be able to go to that school and not have to pay anything for it,” Coulson said.
She graduated in 1997 with a bachelor of architecture. In London, she worked at Foster & Partners, where the high-tech movement in architecture was getting started.
In fact, the very week she started, they had begun working on a new London skyscraper. The firm had won a competition a couple of years earlier — but with a different design. The company had scrapped that look and sought a new one. Coulson asked to be part of it, and she became part of a ragtag band of four recent grads who produced an entirely new building — a curved torpedo-looking tower that Londoners nicknamed the Gherkin. Technically, it was named the Swiss Re Building and now is 30 St. Mary Axe (not ave., but axe).
“Right off the bat I was working with the world’s best consultants,” Coulson said.
Her time in London came to an end after two years because of difficulties getting her visa extended. Besides, she longed for Minnesota and wanted to see family. She worked in the Twin Cities for eight years before striking out on her own in Duluth in 2010. And now she produces structures that require near-zero energy despite the winter cold.
“Instead of knocking this subzero weather, I get excited because it shows people from other places that, if you can do this here, you can do this anywhere,” she said.
For Coulson, it’s about the challenge, like finishing a puzzle. She must meet costs, function, mechanics, aesthetics, procession, energy use, views, sustainability and a sense of place, whether residential or commercial.
Many architects leave the ductwork, plumbing, electric and other factors of a structure to other experts — the industry has its silos — but Coulson is trained on what goes into a wall or floor or ceiling — the entire building.
“Our industry is not set up to be integrated,” Coulson said. “But without consultants, the structures are less disjointed and more fluid.”
It allows her to produce integrated designs that meet all kinds of certifications.
Among them is German-based Passive House, a rigorous standard for energy efficiency. She took Passive House training in 2008. Another is LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. This standard is a rating system for green structures and encompasses energy, water, waste and other functions of a place, even composting.
She designed the Bagley Classroom for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. It is the first LEED platinum-certified building in the U of M system.
Architects have agreed to meet the 2030 Challenge, an energy and emissions target for new buildings. Coulson already meets it.
“Most people say the solution to climate change involves technology,” Coulson said. “Actually, it is simplification.”
Take a three-story building to be built this year overlooking the lake and harbor of Duluth called the MH House. When it gets down to 30 below, the peak heating load will be about 2,000 watts.
Ninety-percent reduction in energy demand comes from no-tech or low-tech solutions — an air-tight enclosure, capturing sunlight heat (called passive solar), heat-recovery ventilation, compact proportions, summer shading, super-insulation.
High-tech answers are an 800-watt electric radiant panel with a mirror cover in each bathroom. There is no cooling system. A heat exchanger using a gallon of water cools and dehumidifies the entire structure.
The walls and other sections are prefabricated, then assembled on site. Architects call them SIPs, for structural insulated panels — light, efficient and strong. Think of how bicycles have become lighter, stronger, faster with the right materials. So can homes.
Stunningly, this building is 24 feet high. That means the stories are 8 feet each, reducing the heat load. The floors are merely 4 inches thick because they don’t need all that ductwork. Yet the total square feet is 2,430.
What’s more, it doesn’t scream “green building” with gadgets all over the place.
“I like people not knowing it’s a green building until you say it doesn’t have a furnace room,” Coulson said.
She calls her design style “invisible sustainability.”
You might ask the same question I did: Considering all that’s going on with the planet, why isn’t this sort of conservation being done in throughout the construction fields?
“There’s no incentive to push the envelope,” Coulson answered.
She’s won awards for renovations, too. A good example is a 2,500-square-foot home on the ledge rock overlooking Lake Superior. Super-insulation. Heat recovery. Air-tight. Triple-pane glass. Optimal use of the sun.
The heat load was reduced by 84 percent. It won a many awards, such as the 2016 Chicago Athenaeum Green Good Design Award, and has been showcased as far away as Milan and Athens.
Zero energy. Zero waste. Zero water. Call it triple-zero living. That is the envelope pushing of Disappear Retreat, designed for the Grand Marais Arts Colony.
It is an 8x10x9-foot structure for glamping in the boreal forest. Yes, glamping — that trend of glamorous camping. People stay in minimal locations but with resort-like amenities.
A prototype will be up this year, with more in coming years. It could be 25 below outside, yet no heating is required inside. In fact, it would never get below 60 degrees in the building. The energy is supplied by a photovoltaic system integrated into the south glass wall. The sun does it all.
The impetus for the project was falling asleep under the stars and northern lights at a self-sufficient place near to the surrounding ecosystem. The buildings have glass ceilings and two glass walls and seem camouflaged in the woods, yet safe for birds.
The peak load — 100 watts. That’s a light bulb.
And we haven’t even discussed the innovative plumbing, the composting and other aspects of these structures. Or the other many projects such has built or are coming in places like Detroit and Chicago.
But if you like seeing the future now, follow the work of this architect who grew up Waconia.