Arch House: A Different Way to Build

When Gregg Carlsen and his wife decided to build their dream home, they based their house design on the classic arch: an elegant, economical, and nearly indestructible architectural structure.

| September/October 1989

People who have survived the building of their own homes often compare the experience to bearing and raising a child. There is the conception: A dream takes seed, planning begins. Next comes gestation: visible growth, a leap off the paper and into the soil. At birth, perhaps analogous to being "dried in," the house takes on a life of its own, autonomous but far from complete. Later, often much later for the owner-builder, there's the finished product—nurtured to capable, comfortable maturity.

But why such an odd-looking child—a house that looks like a mailbox, a loaf of bread, a pioneer wagon?

The notion for a barrel-vault structure (the accepted architectural handle for the "arch house" shape) came not from hoops and loops or my previous work with geodesic domes but from a rather unlikely source: Back in 1981, I noticed a classified ad offering (for an unheard-of low price) thousands of old 2 × 12s salvaged from dismantled bleachers. The catch was that they were only 6' long—too short for conventional roofs, floors or walls. At first I toyed with the possibility of laminating the short boards into straight beams. But if I was going to the trouble to laminate, why not make curved beams?

I didn't end up buying the old bleachers, but I did acquire a curiosity about arched structures built of segmented materials. During the six years of planning that followed, it became clear that plywood held many advantages over dimensional lumber. It was easier to handle, cut and fasten; it was extremely uniform and predictable; and it was readily available. With that settled, I knew how I wanted to build the trusses, and I knew intuitively such trusses would be wondrously strong. But I also knew that building inspectors and banks gave little credence to intuition. Doodling and research continued.

Then came a pivotal phone call. An old high-school chum called to tell me that a close mutual friend, age 32, had died unexpectedly. Deeply shaken, my wife, Nanny, and I sat down that very evening and decided it was time to do the things we really wanted to do—now. One of those things was building our dream home.

Draining our savings account, we were able to swing the down payment on a two-acre wooded parcel on a dead-end road in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, just east of the Twin Cities. A real bonus was the developer's offer of a discount if we'd take the property with the dilapidated 90-year-old farmhouse that had stood vacant for years. To him it was a liability—an eyesore to be torn down and hauled away to make the lot salable. To us it was an asset—a place to camp while we built our home.

Planning the Arch House

We spent March of 1985 administering CPR to the old farmhouse. Electrical service was restored, and a new pressure tank brought the well back to life. Major quirks, like the kitchen floor that listed several inches and a toilet that imitated a bidet when the washing machine hit the rinse cycle, were simply endured. Frozen pipes in the winter, a leaky roof in the spring, walls sprouting mushrooms in the summer were the calendar pages by which we judged the seasons.

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