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Home Improvement Guru Amy Matthews Tunes Her Modern Barnhouse to the Land

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Apr 25, 2021

"I've been in the building industry for a long time," says home-improvement guru Amy Matthews. A designer, general contractor, and the host of such television shows as Renovation Raiders, Sweat Equity, Bathroom Renovations, Blog Cabin, This New House, and This Old House, Matthews has long studied "all of the new and innovative technologies that go into homes," she says, including sustainable strategies. So, when the opportunity arose to build her own home, she was ready.

About five years ago, the owners of a five-acre rural property outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul, in the St. Croix River Valley, asked Matthews to help them with a remodel. She also had a television show in the works about the project. When the homeowners decided to move instead, Matthews bought their property.

Modern Barnhouse Demolition Hartman Homes
Modern Barnhouse Demolition. Photo Credit: Hartman Homes via This Old House

At first, she thought about continuing the remodel. Then, she worked her connections with the long-time, home-improvement brand and media company This Old House.   She inspired them to build their first Idea House in the Midwest: Her own 3,700 square-foot dream home, the "Modern Barnhouse."

"After looking at all of the sustainable approaches, technologies, and products that go into homes, from Passive House to LEED," Matthews says, "I decided to pull from all of these ideas. Also, there is a budget: I'm a single mom and run several businesses. So, I look at the return on investment. To me, it's about piecing things together that work for your climate and budget."

Amy Matthews Modern Barnhouse
Amy Matthews and builder Chad Maack at the Modern Barnhouse Site. Photo Credit: Amy Matthews

"Tuning" the House to the Landscape

Having worked with architect John Dwyer on the site's former remodel, Matthews decided to stay with the firm Dwyer co-founded, D/O Architects in Minneapolis, because of the firm's modern aesthetic. In building her own home from scratch, Matthews also knew "it wasn't just about a house, but about creating something that fits into and reflects the historical farmstead and surrounding landscape," she says.

The rural vernacular of the barn and the site's context as a farm worked by Scandinavian immigrants led D/O co-founder Colin Oglesbay to take a holistic approach to the home's design—in collaboration with Matthews. 

Amy Working With Contractors Modern Barnhouse
Amy Working With Contractors at her Modern Barnhouse. Photo Credit: Amy Matthews

"I knew what I wanted," she says. "I needed someone to draw it. He was open and understanding, and it's been exciting to be creative with Colin and his team." For more on the site, view Matthews' video here.

Even before the old existing house was demolished and Matthews broke ground, she spent hours on the site. "I gave myself lots of time to understand the land and the light," she explains. "I wanted to know what sunrise, sunset, and every hour in between would look like through every window. I was 'tuning' the windows—it's a Scandinavian principle—to capture and maximize light and views."

Modern Barnhouse Foundation Hartman Homes
Modern Barnhouse Foundation. Photo Credit: Hartman Homes via This Old House

Glass, Concrete, and SIPs

The construction team laid out the foundation forms in the shape of the 100-foot-long by 20-foot-wide home. The 14-by-15-foot wings on either side of the far end of the foundation are for the dining room and family sunroom; floor-to-ceiling windows will offer panoramic views of the farmstead. After the forms were filled with rebar-enforced concrete, they were removed. Then the team affixed rigid foam insulation to the exterior and interior foundation walls.

Wall Building at the Modern Barnhouse Amy Matthews
Wall Building at the Modern Barnhouse. Photo Credit: Amy Matthews

How Did the Modern Barnhouse Build the Walls?

Matthews chose to build her walls with SIPs (structural insulated panels). "The home's eight-inch-thick walls make the structure feel sturdy and old," Matthews says, "and there's no thermal bridging, so it's an air-tight, solid house."

Hydronic Heating at the Modern Barnhouse
Hydronic Heating at the Modern Barnhouse. Photo Credit: Hartman Homes via This Old House

How Is the Modern Barnhouse Heated?

She also decided to heat the home with zoned hydronic in-floor heating. The garage and mudroom, main house, and dining room, and sunroom are in different zones. "The hydronic heat was the best way to effectively, affordably, and most comfortably heat the spaces," she says.  

After installed the pipes, the team poured the concrete floor. Matthews had the concrete floors burnished "to make the floors strong and hard and shiny," she says. She loves the marbleized look burnishing creates. Moreover, underfoot the floor "feels like hard silk." To hear more on the construction, view Matthews' video here.

Working Inside the Modern Barnhouse
Working Inside the Modern Barnhouse. Photo Credit: Amy Matthews

What Windows Did Where Installed in the Modern Barnhouse?

The house has 1,800-square-feet of energy-efficient glazing, which Matthews "tuned" to capture light throughout the day and seasons. The argon-gas-filled Sierra Pacific windows are coated with three layers of silver oxide, "which rejects the sun's heat in the summer, and keeps the house warm in the winter," she explains.

And those windows! There are trapezoid windows in the master bath to create a treehouse effect; 20-foot-tall windows on either side of the chimney to the west; glass boxes that project into the valley "creating a snow-globe experience in the dining room and sunroom"; and a two-story glass link that bridges the main house and master suite. In other words, the house thoroughly blurs any distinctions between the inside and the outdoors.

"I'm building a geographically appropriate house, as there are four strong seasons in Minnesota," Matthews adds. Because she doesn't like air conditioning, most of the windows are operable for natural ventilation. Strategically placed skylights can be opened in summer for a "stack effect," pulling hot air up and out of the house. This is, she continues, her 'passive' approach to creating comfort affordably."

Installing Metal Roof Modern Barnhouse Ryan Stokes
Installing Metal Roof Modern Barnhouse. Photo Credit: Ryan Stokes via This Old House

How Did the Modern Barnhouse Build Its Exterior?

Matthews' team also includes builder Chad Maack of Hartman Homes. Together, they selected standing-seam metal panels for the roof. "It's strong and durable, has a long-life that will protect the home, and ties into the history of the farmstead," says Matthews, referring to the metal silos and the metal roofs often used on vernacular farm buildings. 

Matthews had the house clad in western red cedar, "which is naturally resistant to rot and decay. Matthews selected eight-inch tongue-in-groove cedar "for a modern look." The wood was treated with a stain that will accelerate the weathering process, so in several months the home will have a silver tone.

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Partnerships and Giving Back

Matthews repurposed some of the interior doors, hardware, and plumbing from the original house. She donated many of the materials from the old house to Habitat for Humanity.

Besides building a home for herself and her son, Matthews is renovating an outbuilding into a building-trades training workshop as an initiative of her non-profit, And Now She Rises (ANSR). The workshop will serve as a space for women recovering from domestic abuse to receive training in the building trades. 

Of the process and all of the partnerships making the "Modern Barnhouse" possible, she says, "It's been so exciting to be creative with everyone." 

Curious? Follow the construction of Matthews' "Modern Barnhouse" on these 24/7 webcams

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