Story by: Alyssa Nishek
Photography by: Dan Francis Photography
Positioned along the Red River within a Fargo, North Dakota, neighborhood, where every home tells a unique story, is The Dark Horse. Home to Chris and Kyja Nelson, as well as their nine year old daughter, Unna, this home, with its contemporary take on minimal design, was originally built in the 1930s just minutes away from downtown Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota.
Kyja Nelson spent her early years in the Fargo area, then returned in 2006 after accepting a position teaching film at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She and her husband, Chris, who works as a geologist at Northern Technologies, LLC, purchased the home that same year, drawn specifically to the outdoor opportunities its location provided.
The Nelsons’ renovations started a decade ago, initially with minor tweaks here and there, then major changes later on. The first of the real changes began when, as Kyja described it, “a broken fridge opened a Pandora’s box.” When a new replacement refrigerator wasn’t able to fit into the doorway of their kitchen, molding was removed and soon walls would be too. With newborn daughter Unna in tow, the Nelsons removed several walls on the main floor and reinforced the older bones of their home. Focusing on energy efficiency, they also double studded all the walls to make room for more insulation.
The unique wooden stool at the end of the kitchen island is a handmade piece gifted to the family from Kyja’s father.
As an active family who loves to hit the cross-country ski trails in the winter and to bike, canoe, longboard and run in the summer, the Nelsons’ main goal with their renovations was to refocus their home toward the backyard. With only a few small windows facing the Red River behind them, a change needed to occur in order to take full advantage of their awesome location. To remedy this, they added several windows facing the backyard on the first and second floors, as well as built a walkout deck on the first level.
Throughout their naturally light and bright home, the Nelsons have incorporated several thoughtful touches of repurposed wooden elements, such as the structural teal beams in the dining room.
The centerpiece of the Nelsons' dining room was made from reclaimed wood once used as a bowling lane in the Milwaukee area.
The home was one-and-a-half stories when the Nelsons initially purchased it. Although they completely gutted the upstairs, reinforcing and reinsulating the roof, the pair simply felt they weren’t making the most of their space, especially with a growing daughter.
“We had our eye on the market for years, but ultimately we love our neighborhood and love our neighbors; we love the location of our house, and given the amount of work we had already put into it, we wanted to stay,”
- Kyja Nelson said.
With plans to rip off the roof, the Nelsons decided it was time to call in a professional. “Dahms Design was at the top of our list,” Kyja said. Scott Dahms of Dahms Design had known the Nelsons for years and had been to their home in the past. Dahms was not only the architect on the project; but he was also the one on-site building it, giving the Nelsons the collaborative experience they were looking for in their renovations.
“We always strive for a strong client and architect/builder relationship that’ll contribute to a fun build,” Dahms said.
Because the landing area into the second story serves as a large transitional space, Dahms, along with the Nelsons, decided to utilize it more purposefully as a well-lit workspace with plenty of daylight.
“We wanted to maintain the original footprint of the home,” Kyja explained. “We weren’t looking to add more square footage horizontally, but rather vertically with the goal of using that space smarter.”
Dahms added a full second story and back balcony, keeping in mind the Nelsons’ goal to have the backyard be an extension of their home. The pair appreciated his openness and ability to reuse the materials they’d had in place, such as the insulation they’d put into the half-story roof a few years prior, along with windows they’d previously installed. In addition to the upper level changes, Dahms replaced the small “hut-like” entry of the home with a more adequate vestibule.
“My favorite change to the build was deciding to cap off one end of the upper and lower deck," Dahms said. "Along with the way it mimics the front entry, it also creates a more intimate space to be in. It really made a lot of sense, and I don’t think it would’ve happened in a traditional build when the designer isn’t present on a day to day basis.”
The bright primary bedroom’s bold headboard was crafted by J. Earl Miller Studios from a felled walnut tree in Fargo.
Unna Nelson was most grateful for the addition of a door into her bedroom. Before Dahms arrived, there was just one interior door in the Nelsons’ home, which was not ideal for their growing daughter.
Before moving back to the Fargo area in 2006, Kyja and Chris were living on the North Coast of Iceland, while Kyja was making a film largely based on her Icelandic ancestry. During their time there, the pair grew fond of Icelandic design, which incorporates lots of steel roofs and siding. More specifically, the design of the Icelandic Emigration Center, located in the fjord where Kyja’s family is from, caught the pair’s eye. The design of this center consisted of several black wood buildings. “Ever since then, I have always wanted to pay homage to that site," Kyja said. "We miss living there. We miss our friends. So we made a deal with Scott. He would supply the wood from his grain elevator, and we would do the finishing of it, which included a technique called Shou Sugi Ban.” Creating this unique hand finished design was no simple task.
“It was definitely time consuming,” Kyja said of the process of creating the Shou Sugi Ban finish on their home’s exterior. “It was a labor of love, filled with learning opportunities along the way. That was another reason I really liked working with Scott; the design continued to evolve as we got into the space and learned how the design felt with the surroundings; how light and landscape interacted with the space.”
The ultra collaborative design process, combining Dahms’s creative adaptability and the Nelsons’ distinct vision for their potential space, resulted in a beautifully unique place for this family to call home.
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