A whimsical, waterside wonder

Modern makeover: A serious sense of design meets a serious sense of fun

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna

Rodrigo Diaz is a risk taker. Ten years ago, the mechanical engineer relocated from Chile to Alaska by selling his newly restored 1965 Mustang and, with the money in his pocket, taking a fateful spin of a globe at the nearest travel agency. Just for the adventure.

Monica Sullivan, RIM Architects
General contractor
Rodrigo Diaz, Perfect Floor, Inc.
Kari Diaz
Kitchen countertops
Vulcan Gold Granite, McKinley Countertops
DeWils, Darin Williams, Spenard Builders Supply
Wood flooring
Brazilian Koa (Tiger Wood), Alaska Wood Flooring Supply, installed by Rodrigo Diaz, Perfect Floor, Inc.
Kitchen appliances
KitchenAid oven and range, Spenard Builders Supply; Samsung refrigerator and Bosch dishwasher, Lowe's
Bathroom lighting
The Lighting Gallery by Brown's
All bathroom vanities, sinks and hardware
New York
Bathroom tile
Powder bath, slate; Main bath, porcelain; Kids' bath, ceramic tile; Master bath, travertine; installed by Rodrigo Diaz
Master bath steam shower glass
Speedy Glass
Stainless steel frame, Jeremy Williams, H&K Sheetmetal Fabricators, Inc.; plywood design, Rodrigo Diaz
Kitchen pendants
German doors
Wilsonart laminate
Trex, Spenard Builders Supply

So it's not surprising that when he and his wife Kari Anne purchased a decidedly "vintage" duplex to renovate for their growing family, the results would be adventurous too. The home the couple shares with their children Chanel and Rocco (with another son, Mateo, on the way) is modern, edgy and playful. It's a house for a family that takes their fun very seriously.

The 'wow' factor

The lot on which the house sits is a playground in its own right. "It's a very special piece of land," says Rodrigo. At the edge of tranquil Birch Lake, the home is like a private resort with boating in summer, and sledding and skating in winter.

The view, which floods the open and airy main living space, initially distracts one from the home's striking interior. Through the wall of windows, visitors see the glassy lake reflecting the sky and distant mountains. Families of ducks swim peacefully across the surface (and, notes Rodrigo, the occasional pair of swans).

When people first walk in, says Rodrigo, "They all say the same thing. Everybody says, 'Wow!' "

Chic shapes

Inside, the home is modern, funky, creative and eclectic. "I wanted to feel at home – like I'm in Chile," says Rodrigo. While he loves Alaskan life, he says he misses the modern edge and European flair of his home country.

Warm earth tones and Brazilian koa wood create a summery atmosphere that, in winter, will belie the chill outside. Wine-colored accent walls celebrate Chile's famous vineyards. Copper accents throughout the home are a motif that pays tribute the country's copper mining industry.

The kitchen area is chic and edgy – anything but a "country kitchen." Mahogany cabinets are lacquered to a high gloss ("like a piano," says Rodrigo). Modern minimalist stools flank the island eating area.

Throughout the home are playful, modern geometric vignettes – circles inside of squares, a large infinite circle carved out of the wall above the dining room table, and a large teardrop shaped island that defines and dramatizes the kitchen area. "I like to play with shapes and the proportions," says Rodrigo.

Up to code and beyond

While the aesthetics evoke Chile, the inner-workings of the house do too. The home's wiring and plumbing "go beyond what code requires," he says. "It's built to Chilean code," he says, only half-joking, pointing out that Chile, like Alaska, has a high number of earthquakes.

The importance of the upgrade was made urgent when the home had an electrical fire in the middle of the renovation. The wiring in the 1961 house was, like many older homes, dangerously poor, says Rodrigo. The new system is simple, he says, pointing to the soffets that hide the home's state-of-the-art internal systems. "There aren't wires all over the place. The electricity is in one place; the air system and the plumbing are in another. It's easy. It's simple."

Reuse, recycle, re-purpose and reclaim

Rodrigo is proud of the "green" aspects of the remodel. He was determined to build a high-efficiency home using renewable and recycled products. Soy-based, spray-on insulation six-inches thick, European metal siding, energy-efficient appliances, recycled decking and flooring all have turned the two-star rated duplex into a five-star single-family home.

In addition, Rodrigo used as many re-purposed materials as possible. Inexpensive industrial pipe was used throughout the house – as the balusters of the outdoor deck, and as finishing touches on walls and cabinetry. The same piping was married to some leftover shower railing and a $30 chandelier, creating a unique and decidedly expensive-looking light fixture in the dining room.

In the stairwell, Rodrigo opted against expensive tempered glass and instead transformed plywood sheets into a whimsical work of art. He primed them, cut out randomly placed circles, then painted them with a copper-toned metallic finish for a look that is unique, modern and affordable.

The art of the deal

Clever design and shrewd shopping helped rein in the costs of the home's renovation. An elegant, windowed door was an unclaimed special order that Rodrigo was able to purchase for a song. It sat for so long in the warehouse that Rodrigo had to fix some scratches and clear-coat it. Leftover decking material was purchased in bulk from a Fairbanks contractor. Rodrigo used what he needed and then further maximized his savings by selling his leftovers. Bundles of industrial tubing create the modern sheen of stainless steel railing for a fraction of the price. The state-of-the-art refrigerator – complete with built-in TV – was purchased off the demo floor for a massive discount.

Shopping savvy plus a lot of sweat equity saved a huge water-damaged wooden beam that is a focal point in the home's living room. "I sanded that thing for three days," says Rodrigo. And now it is back to its gleaming original glory.

Delightful details: Marbles, halos and a light show

While the house is built on the serious principles of responsible design, cost-effectiveness and energy efficiency, the results are pure fun. Delightfully playful surprises are found in every room of the house.

A glass wall encases hundreds of iridescent marbles evoking the games of Rodrigo's childhood. Bold works of art enliven every wall – from the whimsical sculpture of Don Quixote made from recycled nails, screws and rebar, to the bright cityscapes bought at an arts festival in South America, to the vivid, oversized family portraits in the bedrooms and the triptych of a blossoming sunflower (all painted by artist and family friend Lili Buitron).

The space under the stairs converts to a tiny playroom that joins the children's bedrooms. Pink and blue accent walls brighten the bedrooms, which overlook the lake. In their bathroom, adorable "halo" lights are perched over the mirrors illuminating the couple's "two little angels."

The master bathroom boasts an enormous double-headed shower and steam unit. While you're enjoying this luxury, you can "switch on" a row of adjoining glass tiles that create a light show in shades of blues, greens and pinks – your own personal "Northern Lights," explains Rodrigo.

Music and mojitos

Outside is a setting for a party waiting to happen. The substantial deck is perfect for grilling. Music streams from well-hidden speakers. The lush green lawn encourages bare feet. And the best part of the garden? The patch of mint growing next to the house – "our mojito garden," says Rodrigo.

When people come out on the deck, says Rodrigo, they are transported. "They say, 'Where are the martinis?' " And that couldn't make him happier. The Diaz family has adopted a Chilean mindset, he says. "We don't live to work; we live to have fun!"