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

  • Handbuilt Arch House
    Without the generous help of family and friends, this owner-builder project would not have been possible.
    PHOTO: JIM BRANDENBURG
  • arc home frame
    Continous, curved trusses (31 of them in the Carlsen Archome) transfer roof-wall loads to oversized top plates, making a barrel-vault structure one of the sturdiest shapes known.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • arc home
    Eastern and southern exposures of this hybrid design are generously glazed, while the west and north are earth-bermed.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • Arc Home First Floor Plans
    First Floor: The entry provides access to both the main living areas and the isolated office space above.
    DON OSBY
  • Arc Home Third Floor Plans
    Third Floor: The stairway continues to the third-floor balcony, which overlooks the kitchen-dining area.
    DON OSBY
  • bulldozed farmhouse
    A 90-year-old, moldering farmhouse was home to the Carlsens during the three years of construction.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • Arc Home Second Floor Plans
    Second Floor: An open U-shaped stairway leads to the three second-floor bedrooms, the baths and a laundry area.
    DON OSBY
  • curved planks
    Truss parts were cut with circular saws and jigs.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • raising trusses
    Pieces were laminated, glued and stapled.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • Arc home beams
    Sheathing conformed easily to the gentle curve of the main roof.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • curved frame
    A crane eased the raising of the 500-pound trusses. The east end gable was framed on the ground.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • stairs
    Carlsen and his carpenter friends took particular pleasure in the finish work.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • Little boy with hammer
    Zachary Carlsen pitches in.
    GREGG CARLSEN
  • Arc home interior
    Because the roof is self-supporting, partitions can be placed at whim.
    GREGG CARLSEN

  • Handbuilt Arch House
  • arc home frame
  • arc home
  • Arc Home First Floor Plans
  • Arc Home Third Floor Plans
  • bulldozed farmhouse
  • Arc Home Second Floor Plans
  • curved planks
  • raising trusses
  • Arc home beams
  • curved frame
  • stairs
  • Little boy with hammer
  • Arc home interior

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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