Couple builds new home next door on Koronis


Great window
The window on the front wall of the Merrill's great room is a series of eight geometrically-shaped windows so that the view of the lake would be the focus for anyone entering their new house.

Great room
Another key feature of their great room is the floor-to-ceiling cultured stone gas fireplace. The bar, to the left of the fireplace, is made of barn wood and finished with several layers of lacquer.

Keeping the kitchen open to the great room was important to the Merrills, so they did not want kitchen cabinets over the bar to block the views. But they wanted the bar to be high enough to hide dirty dishes on the counter while entertaining.

Dining room
The Merrills wanted their house to be casual, so they opted for a dining area in the great room, not a formal dining room.

Instead of a full basement, the Merrills decided to finish the second story above their three-stall garage, creating a "bunkhouse" for guests with a bed, TV, and kitchenette. The Merrills also use it as an exercise room and for storage.

By Michael Jacobson
Having already lived on the south shore of Lake Koronis for 14 years and having owned the neighboring lake lot for 10 years, John and Sheila Merrill had some strong ideas when it came to building a new house.

The Merrills, who moved to Paynesville in 1989, purchased the lot next door in 1993, with the intention to ultimately build a new house on it, but they had to wait until their daughters finished high school and college, first.

"Once we got the lot, we originally wanted to build a log home," said Sheila. They read magazines for ideas for the floorplan, and even subscribed to a log home magazine for a time.

In the end, though, they opted for a more "retirement friendly" house, and while they kept some of the country, woodsy feel of a log home interior, they chose a stucco exterior for easier maintenance.

They brought their ideas to the lumberyard, which made initial plans. Then the Merrill's had John's brother, an architect, make the final plans.

They wanted their new house to be open and welcoming, a reflection of their casual lifestyle, they said. They wanted it to be "retirement friendly," said Sheila, capable of one-floor living. ("If something would have happened to either of us (in their old house), we would have been out of luck," added Sheila, because their old house had three levels but not a single bedroom on the main level.) And they wanted their new house to address some of the deficiencies of their old house. When they moved from the Twin Cities to Lake Koronis in 1989, they were naive about lake living, said Sheila, but over 14 years in their old house, they learned what they wanted in a house.

•Like having more views of the lake. Their old house, built in 1983, was designed to be extremely energy efficient, but at the cost of having fewer windows. Views of the lake were critical in the new house, explained John. "From every room on the main floor, you can see the lake. That was intentional," he said.

"We had energy in mind," added John, "in all the windows are double or triple glazed, but the view of the lake was important."

•Like having a fireplace. Though in a nod to convenience, they went with gas, so they wouldn't always have to carry wood.

•Like having a true screened porch. Not a three-season porch, which they find too confining. The screened porch on the east side of their new house faces the lake and has screens from floor to ceiling, so it "really feels like sitting in the woods," said Sheila. The Merrills flipped the rotation of their new house 180 degrees in order to save an oak tree on their lot, and they curved their driveway to save a stand of birch trees. They are gradually culling trees for sight lines to the lake.

They started building in September 2003 and moved into their new house in May 2004.

The focus on the lake is immediately evident in their great room, which features a series of eight geometrically-shaped windows on the two-story front wall facing the lake. The lake is hidden coming down their driveway, so the view in the great room, which greets visitors, is almost overwhelming. "When you come in the front door, the lake is all you see," said John. "It's pretty dramatic."

"Your eyes just go to the lake," agreed Sheila.

After the framers erected the window-laden wall of their great room - which, at maybe 25' by 25', is like a giant bay window - John and Sheila visited their unfinished new home and sat on a blanket to look at the stars through the windows, knowing that that view is what they wanted.

Despite the size of the windows, the Merrills have not had any need for drapes because they feel their privacy is pretty well maintained by the foliage from their trees. If boaters do catch a glimpse of their front windows, the difference in elevation from the lake means they would only see the ceiling anyway.

For symmetry, the house also has a smaller diamond-shaped window on the top of the house facing the driveway, mirroring the top window on the front wall of the great room.

Another key feature in their great room is their cultured stone gas fireplace. "We wanted that fireplace to be a major focus of the room, so that's why it's floor to ceiling," said John.

The burgundy hues of the Lake Superior River Rock, their choice for the cultured stone in the fireplace, matches the colors of their ceramic tile.

The Merrills love tile floors - from their travels to Mexico - but did not think they would be possible until they learned about in-floor heat, which keeps the tile floors warm to the touch. Most of the downstairs - the great room, the kitchen, the small laundry room, the back hall, the guest bathroom, and the hot tub room - has tile floors. "We wanted a lot of tile," said John, "and we got it."

(The guest bathroom on the main floor was even designed and decorated to match a blue ceramic sink that the Merrills bought in Mexico a couple years ago.)

At the advice of their installer, they had the tile set on a diagonal to break up the great room and to avoid seeing the tile as columns and rows. "Because of the space we were covering, we felt we could use any tile we wanted because we felt it wouldn't overpower the room," said John.

The Merrills only wanted to have usable formal dining room, no formal living room, even the guest bedrooms double as either exercise areas or as storage. The Merrills have found their great room to be a flexible space, comfortably handling two dozen guests, sitting up to 18 for dinner, and having enough room to dance on New Year's Eve.

The great room - with windows stretching across the front of the house - connects to a dining area and to the kitchen. The black granite kitchen countertops, with burgundy and mauve accents, matches the shades in the tile floor.

"We wanted to have a kitchen that was open to (the great) room. We love to entertain, but I didn't want to miss the party by being in the kitchen," said Sheila, who had mere galley kitchens in both of their previous houses.

The Merrills lived in Hopkins before John moved his manufacturing company to Litchfield 16 years ago. They looked for house on a lake in the Litchfield area back then but could not find anything they liked. When they called their realtor to tell him they wanted to expand the geographic area of their search, he replied that he had just listed a house on Lake Koronis, which led the Merrills to settle in the Paynesville area.

They have "never regretted it," said Sheila, living on a great lake, having a great school district for their daughters, being part of a great community. John has two stop signs on his commute to Litchfield, which is the same distance as his former drive from Hopkins to Minneapolis but takes half the time. "We could never have afforded to live on a lake in the Twin Cities," added Sheila.

The Merrills first used black appliances in their old house on Lake Koronis, replacing the almond-colored originals. They liked how the black contrasted with the light wood (white pine in that house). So they chose black appliances for their new house, too, and they like the contrast with the hickory cabinets in their new kitchen.

They even put their microwave in a below-counter alcove to insure they had clear views from the kitchen to the lake. Having a microwave that you have to bend to use might not be ideal for everyone, Sheila admitted, but they don't used theirs much, so it wasn't a big sacrifice. "The whole point was to make it as open as possible," explained John.

Except, from the great room, they didn't want everything in the kitchen to be visible. So they had the kitchen bar raised; that way, dirty dishes can be put in kitchen when entertaining and remain out of sight for the rest of the night.

Their passion for entertaining led the Merrills to include a bar in their great room, too. "That's one of the things that I really wanted," said Sheila, "because it's one of the things that we didn't have in the old house." When they entertain, Sheila wanted guests to make their drinks at the bar, instead of on the table, which was probably already set for dinner.

The bar is perhaps the most unusual wood in the house. It was made of barnwood, finished with several layers of lacquer. The house also contains knotty elder in the dining area of the great room, alder in the master bedroom, and white oak and hickory in the great room.

Their old house was all wood inside, so the only color on walls were decorations, said Sheila. So for their new great room, they chose a deep burgundy suede paint. The first coat was rolled onto the walls, and the second was painted with X-strokes. Grit in the paint gives the walls texture.

The Merrills also commissioned an artist, the daughter of a friend, to paint a burgundy-based abstract to hang over their new front door.

Views of the lake were also important for their hot tub room on the main floor. They can open the windows in this room, to the adjoining screened porch, and can see out and feel the breeze, like they were sitting outside in the hot tub. The hot tub is a great place to sit and watch a snowstorm, said Sheila, with the crisp winter air causing you to stay neck deep in the warm water. But having the hot tub inside makes it more efficient to heat, added John.

The Merrills also wanted a view of the lake in their main-floor master bedroom, which has its own deck, a walk-in closet, and a master bathroom with two sinks, toilet, walk-in shower, and separate bathtub. They can even see sunrises through the see-through fireplace.

Their master bedroom is the only room that gets cold in the winter from a strong north wind. Their bedroom is the only room on the main floor that is carpeted, which reduces the impact of the in-floor heat. John and Sheila don't mind it being a little cooler for sleeping, though, or they can use their gas fireplace to take the chill from the air.

Upstairs, the second floor has identical guest bedrooms, separated by a catwalk, which is wide enough for a desk and their home computer. The second floor also has a guest bathroom and a 15' by 25' storage room.

Their new house has twice as much storage as their old house, another lesson from experience. And all this extra storage space comes despite eliminating the basement. The Merrills wanted a half basement for easy entry from lake and were talking about having a full basement since there was little extra cost in doing that. But the house came to 5,400 sq. ft. with a full basement, which they thought was too much house for just two people, so they eventually decided to have no basement at all except for a utility room and a small storeroom that doubles as a wine cellar.

Instead of a basement, the Merrills opted to finish the second story above their three-stall garage. The "bunkhouse" has a bed, TV, and kitchenette, so it's great for guests, especially with kids. "They can stay up all night, and they're not going to bother anyone, and we can get up in the morning and not bother them," explained Sheila.

John and Sheila use the bunkhouse as an exercise room, but they can store their fitness equipment in a large closet when guests come. Since the room has a dual purpose, it became justifiable, said John, especially when they decided not to build a basement.

At 3,400 sq. ft., their new house is roughly the same size as their old house, the Merrills noted, which surprises a lot of people. It may look bigger, but their old house had three levels with a full basement.

The Merrills are very pleased overall with their new house and would make no changes to the basic design. "It's comfortable. It fits our lifestyle," said Sheila. "We did this with the idea of this being our last home, but I wouldn't mind doing it again."

They do have some small regrets, like wanting more outlets (in the floor of the great room for lamps, for instance) and wishing certain light switches were in more strategic locations. When building a house, it's easy to get overwhelmed with decisions, they said, and they simply wish they would have taken more time to think about the location of outlets and light switches.

And they still have a few things to do, such as finishing the driveway, finishing the steps to the bunkhouse, and finishing the landscaping. But they are ready to entertain in their new house, including for their daughters' weddings this year. Their daughter Mackenzie is planning a May wedding, and their daughter Michaela is planning an October wedding.

Return to Home Improvement