Nature speeds up a building project (© Chad Holder)

© Chad Holder

About 15 years ago, architect Dave Solner and his wife, Chip, bought a modest house in Apple Valley, Minn., with plans to tear it down and build their dream home. "I saw the potential of the site," said Dave Solner, who liked the densely wooded lot, the area's rural feel and the good schools. But a decade later, the Solners, who by then had two energetic sons, were still in their 1,500-square-foot ranch house.

In August 2008, nature intervened. A storm with 70-mph winds knocked down dozens of trees and damaged their house as well as the small rental home they owned next door. As the Solners surveyed the damage, "it just kind of hit us," Solner said. "If we didn't do something now, we never would."

They gathered friends, neighbors and hired hands and for several weeks used chain saws to salvage wood from the more than 50 downed trees, which they stockpiled and eventually milled on the property. Solner, whose professional projects have included designing dozens of Rainforest Cafe restaurants worldwide, said the salvaged lumber was used to build everything from staircases to a fireplace mantel to the dining table.

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The new house, designed by Solner, is a 6,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bath contemporary. Wrapped in recycled stainless steel and cement fiber-board shingles, it looks like a series of interconnected boxes. Inside, high ceilings and floors at varying levels distinguish the rooms in the otherwise open floor plan.

A sleek kitchen with 20-foot ceilings and dark wood cabinets is at the center of the home. A large, stone fireplace in the living room and wood throughout the house lend a warmer touch. Floor-to-ceiling windows along the back of the home overlook a feature created by the storm — a view of a small lake nearby.

The house was designed to consume minimal energy and incorporates environmentally friendly features, including geothermal heating and cooling and recycled tile floors and countertops.

Chip Solner, a homemaker who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and enjoys gardening, has several skylit indoor gardens she enjoys tending, often filling them with tropical plants and flowers. Dave Solner, also originally from Wisconsin, has a woodshop in the garage.

Slide show:  The house a storm built

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Their two sons, ages 9 and 11, have the upstairs wing to themselves, with a playroom and two bedrooms, one painted bright orange and the other green. One of the family's favorite places to hang out is the patio, decorated with strings of light bulbs, warmed by a fireplace and with its own TV. The Solners said the patio, along with a hot tub and a fire pit near the lake, means they spend lots of time outside, even during the frigid Minnesota winter.

The home is a dramatic contrast to the more conventional homes in the area. "There are really pretty Ethan Allen and Pottery Barn houses that anybody could step into and live," said Molly Wellik, a neighbor. "But Chip and Dave's house 100% reflects both of them."

Solner, a partner at Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group Architecture, said he spent about $900,000 building the home, which is on five acres. The figure reflects cost savings from some free labor from friends and colleagues, and longtime relationships with vendors and consultants. A Victorian-style, 4,600-square-foot, five-bedroom house built in 2004 on a quarter of an acre nearby is on the market for about $600,000.

The couple said building after the storm forced them to get financing in 2008, an extremely challenging time for loans and one of their biggest obstacles to completing the project. But it also eliminated the challenge of building around all the old trees on their lot. And they still have a lot of wood left over; stacked piles line their property perimeter. "We've still got plenty of wood for bonfires," Solner said.

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