The weeHouse comes to Linden Hills

A crane begins lowering a section of the weeHouse onto its foundation. The house is being installed in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

People are out with cameras in hand. Folks walking their dogs stop and stare.

It's not the human neighbor drawing the attention, it's his house.

Anne Harvil has lived in the neighborhood for 36 years and hasn't seen anything like this here before.

The arrival of the new weeHouse drew spectators as a crane lifted sections into place.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"At three o'clock this morning, we said, 'Oh, I think it's here, or at least the pieces are coming in,'" she says. "And then at quarter to four, the other piece came in."

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Though pieces started arriving at three in the morning, the house will be ready to walk through by three in the afternoon.

This is the weeHouse.

It's a pre-fabricated house -- built elsewhere, then transported here.

At first glance, it looks like box. But up close, it sports modern design and progressive green technology. Many weeHouses arrive in just one piece, and the smallest are less than 500 square feet.

weeHouse drawing
Architects drawing of the weeHouse being installed in Linden Hills.
Image courtesy of Alchemy Architects

Alchemy Architects' project manager Scott Ervin is supervising the site. He points out that at 2,100 square feet, this particular pre-fab is not the wee-est of the wee.

"We've basically got four boxes that come together to build a whole, complete house," Ervin says. "So we've got four trailers, a 165- ton crane and a foundation that's been built a couple of months ago. We take the boxes from the trailers, lift them up over the top of the trees here and set them down on the foundation."

The house features large picture windows, sleek fitted cabinets, custom-made columns, and bamboo flooring. When completed, it will be highly insulated and feature a 95 percent energy-efficient furnace, and dual flush toilets.

This particular weeHouse is getting all the extras, and so will cost upwards of $260,000.

The room is unfinished now, but will feature modern design when fitted out.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Ervin says this residential weeHouse in Linden Hills represents a shift. Past weeHouses have been seen more as a novelty than places where someone actually could live full time. Previous clients have used their weeHouses as second homes, or something like a cabin if they spend a lot of time outdoors.

Ervin and others at Alchemy see the weeHouse as a home, but also as a work of art. The home could look just like one big box, but instead the four modules are different sizes and designed to be slightly offset from one another.

"We treat these things like jewel boxes, like sculptural pieces," Ervin says, "not necessarily just like a salt box house that gets shipped out someplace."

The owner of this particular weeHouse, Brian Oeschger, is a real estate agent. He spends a lot of time looking at homes. But when it came to owning his own place, he was drawn to the weeHouse primarily because of the modern design.

The weeHouse owner, Brian Oeschger. He's a real estate agent who decided he wanted a weeHouse after he saw one featured at an exhibition at the Walker Art Center.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"I actually used to own a loft condo in Uptown, and I just like the large windows and the space and the light," he says.

Oeschger first heard about the weeHouse at a visit to the Walker Art Center two years ago, when it hosted an exhibit about pre-fab buildings.

Oeschger thinks there is a demand for homes like the weeHouse. He says others who own lofts downtown and in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis would be potential weeHouse clients. But, he says, this type of modern design is not really found in homes.

Architecture critic Larry Millett says that's one frustration in the architecture community. Millett says when you really look at it, homebuilding hasn't changed that much over the years.

"You could bring an architect or a builder up from Chicago from the 1850s, and put him on a construction site today. He wouldn't recognize a lot of the tools, but he'd certainly recognize the basic system of what's being built," Millett says.

A section of the weeHouse is parked near to the site ready to be brought to the crane. In all, four sections are being used for the home in Linden Hills.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

The modern weeHouse concept was born when a client came to architect Geoffrey Warner at Alchemy Architects with a limited budget of $50,000. For many project, that would only cover architects' fees.

Warner took on the challenge of designing an entire hom,e and Alchemy Architects came in just a few thousand dollars over the budget.

The dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design, Tom Fisher, believes the weeHouse could offer a new option for middle-class homeowners.

"It offers a very inventive alternative solution that enables people who can say, afford a car, but can't afford a house," Fisher says. "Maybe we should start making homes like cars, so ordinary people can afford them."

Of course, we're a long way from weeHouses being as popular as cars. But for at least one street in Linden Hills, the future may already be here.