Women-led architecture firm pursues sustainability through timeless design.
When one considers the term sustainability, odds are the images that come to mind are not stunning modern homes or commercial developments.
But for Blue Pencil Collective (BPC), a women-led White Bear Lake area architecture and interior design group, the two aren’t contradictory. Co-owners Kasey Johnson and Regan Nix have interlaced sustainability into their one-stop-shop business model, educating commercial and private clients alike on ways to incorporate green practices into their builds and design.
Affectionately referred to as “Kagan” by clients and collaborators, the duo has a self-proclaimed “magic” together that was sparked on its first shared project at a large commercial architecture firm a decade ago. As we chat over Zoom, the pair sits side-by-side in BPC’s Third Street office in downtown White Bear Lake. Each shared exchange reveals two distinct personalities and skill sets that have been woven to support an award-winning company.
Nix takes up the helm of the conversation, her confident and unbridled persona contrasting Johnson’s calm, quiet one as she leaps into a stream-of-consciousness narrative of their company’s approach to timeless design.
“For us, it’s really about using materials that are natural because we want these homes to last … and be beautiful forever,” Nix says. “That’s why we don’t necessarily follow trends.”
Johnson, the soothing moon to Nix’s bright sun, utters each word with care. Her deep brown waves bob as she takes up Nix’s ideas and refines them, adding weight and resolve to each word.
“We don’t say that to be rebellious,” Johnson says. “We say that because we believe that designing to a timeless architecture and design is truly sustainable.”
BPC has aligned its mission with action in five years of business, partnering with green organizations, including Minnesota Land Trust, DemCon and TruNorth Solar, to educate clients, reduce waste and give back to the community.
Along with donating one percent of BPC’s annual profits to the Minnesota Land Trust, Nix and Johnson give their time to the Land Trust as “volunteer monitors,” walking through protected properties to make sure they stay healthy and wild.
“It almost goes against everything that our industry represents,” Johnson says. “But we felt like that was the biggest thing we could possibly do for our sustainability goals. We wanted to almost reverse humanity’s footprint … to actually save land versus destroy it.”
When it comes to enacting that mission in their builds and designs, the pair say education has become the crux of their process. They also require their clients to donate old appliances and work with a waste management company to ensure renovation materials are recycled and disposed of properly.
“In a way, the word sustainability has become so generic and … almost greenwashed,” Nix says. “What we feel more comfortable with is providing connections, tools and awareness and letting people know different ways that they
can [build with sustainability in mind].”
South Hill Social
Aptly dubbed the “Mushroom House” by Stillwater locals, the distinct dome-roofed home with 360-degree views of the St. Croix River Valley had been on the market for weeks. And for good reason.
“Walking through it, it didn’t take long to realize that this would be a daunting project for many people,” says now-homeowner Lee Stoerzinger. The church-turned-home was nearly a century old and with a history to match.
“The house had been in fires,” Nix says. “The walls were butterflying out structurally, and the top of the walls were starting to fall out.”
But when Nix and Johnson stepped into the dark, out-of-date space, they didn’t balk.
“I remember looking at Regan and hearing her say, ‘We can do this,’” Stoerzinger says.
For BPC, building with green techniques isn’t the only way to practice sustainability. Johnson and Nix also share a passion for saving structures that many would consider a lost cause.
“Most people would have said it was a teardown, but we just [saw] potential,” Nix says. “We were still able to salvage a ton of stuff in that house versus tearing it down, putting it in a landfill and using more materials.”
The BPC team, in tandem with Todd Anderson at Lifespace Construction, rebuilt the Stillwater icon from the inside out, crafting a rustic-meets-modern home using three main materials: wood, stone and concrete.
Many see using limited materials as a hallmark of cold, modern design, Johnson explains, adding, “But when you look at the photos [of the home], it just looks warm and cozy and … inviting.”
BPC focused this welcoming design on the family of three’s mission to have not just a house, but a home, fit to accommodate anyone and everyone who wants to be a part of it.
The double-sided fireplace, able to be felt and seen from every corner of the living space, is central to this intent. Looking at the finished result, a majestic statement piece featuring irregular-cut stone from Rivard Stone and black finishes, it’s hard to envision the space without it. But when the structural and technical complexities of the piece delayed the project, the homeowner nearly gave up on their original vision.
“They were like, ‘Just forget it. We’ll put a tiny gas fireplace in. We just have to move on,’” Nix says. But BPC didn’t give up. And six months later, the team found a solution.
“[Our client] looked at us and they said, ‘thank you,’” Nix says. “And we said, ‘For what?’ And they said, ‘For not letting us forget what our goal was. That fireplace is the central part of our family, of our home, it’s everything.’”
Johnson and Nix light up as they reflect on this and other design challenges they solved within the home, from restructuring the small primary bedroom to working within the odd-ceilinged primary bathroom to fit a walk-in shower, free-standing tub and double vanity.
“There’s going to be challenges, but we say there’s not a challenge that can’t be figured out,” Nix says.
The fireplace isn’t the home’s only statement piece. A fixed bar nestled into the living room promotes recreation and conversation, and just steps away, bi-fold doors open up to a multi-use office space, where a built-in daybed extends from the bookshelf to accommodate guests.
In the intimate kitchen, uncomplicated white cabinets and natural wood shelves divert attention to the breathtaking view of the city and historic lift bridge. And in the center of the space, a broad chiseled rock edge island by Living Stone Concrete is surrounded by chaste stools of raw wood, a blank canvas for the creations and conversations to come.
This same satisfying, clean geometry echoes through the home, balanced by curving interior archways and the simple black railing that leads upstairs to the catwalk.
But it’s the hidden reminders of what this space once was that remain one of the pair’s favorite parts. In the home’s past life, the same catwalk led to the priest’s quarters, and the balcony once hosted a lively church choir.
“I love that although it looks completely different … those elements never went away, of what it was originally built for,” Nix says. “There’s still that nod to the history of the house.”
BPC has only called White Bear Lake home for a year, but the pair say they’ve already fallen in love with the tight-knit community that holds a similar penchant for history and art.
“White Bear Lake was a place we always saw our business going,” Nix says. “Just that feeling of community and how strong people feel about White Bear Lake is so inspiring. We’re excited to become more and more involved in this community and see what happens next.”