ARCHITECTS AT HOME: Phil Stahl of Stahl Architects

Phil Stahl Architects

Well known for his contemporary Downtown Fargo office, Phil Stahl of Stahl Architects is picking up his 22-year practice and heading east.


Photos by Paul Flessland | Phil Stahl’s portrait and various interior photos by Gilbertson Photography

With a career devoted to drawing up dreams, architects let their passion for design and function influence every project they work on. From awe-inspiring residential homes to timeless city structures, this is their life’s work; perfectly interwoven with art and science. Intrigued by their character and creativity, we asked three local architects to give us a personal tour of their lives beyond the drawing board.

Phil Stahl of Stahl Architects

Well known for his contemporary Downtown Fargo office, Phil Stahl of Stahl Architects is picking up his 22-year practice and heading east. After selling his landmark studio for a simpler life in the backyard of his Hawley, Minnesota, home, Stahl has created a stunning Scandinavian-style studio to pursue his love of art and architecture.

Stahl Architects

After more than two decades as a fast-paced architect, Stahl found himself yearning for a change of pace. He has lived in the small community of Hawley, Minnesota, for the past 10 years and makes the 30-minute commute to Fargo every day. After spending his spare time pursuing his passion for painting, he soon realized that his masterpieces being created in their master bedroom was causing an unwelcome paint-splattered mess. Stahl accepted the challenge to find a new art studio outside of their home, and decided to transform his one-story backyard garage into a two-story studio made to inspire masterpieces of both architecture and art.

Making the Move

Moving his architecture firm full time to his backyard studio, Stahl is still a practicing architect, but it went from a large firm to more of a sole practice.

Stahl Architects

“It’s a different pace of life, with less overhead,” said Stahl.”You can still maintain the income, but it’s more relaxing.

Stahl Architects

“When you’re in your 30s, you’re kind of go go go, trying to conquer the earth, but mid-life you try to reevaluate and focus on what’s truly important. And that’s kind of when the art side kicked in more.”

The View

A short walk from the the Stahl’s 1978 rambler, guests enjoy the view, the quiet and the glimpse of the nature preserve and pond just beyond the studio. Reminiscent of a childhood tree fort, but emanating a unique Scandinavian flair, the 400-square-foot space is an office, art studio and retreat.

hand-made, twig-style stair railing

Venturing up the rustic steps to the second floor, Stahl points out the hand-made, twig-style stair railing. “I actually wanted more of an aspen or birch railing, but these are cottonwoods,” said Stahl. “This whole area has spots where cottonwood trees get choked. You can see where there are groups of trees that are super tall. When they’re choked, they grow up like that. Normally you would see them in masses where they’re all spread out. They grow up and die, then get bleached by the sun. So, I settled for kind of a grayish white versus a white, but it still fits the design language. It’s a work in progress, but a labor of love.”

hand-made, twig-style stair railing

“For the exterior, I left those little rafter tails on it from the original garage design, plus cantilevered the upper floor out from the lower footprint,” said Stahl. “This area is mostly Scandinavian in heritage, so to honor their context, I used a Scandinavian architectural style called Loftstugen; that’s the way Scandinavians built their homes in Northern Europe. It’s a relatively unknown landmark to Hawley, Minnesota, but I like the ah-ha moment when a neighbor discovers this little treasure.”

Building the Studio

To create his studio with Scandinavian flair, Stahl impressively handled the bulk of the work, taking it on as a part-time hobby. It was initially framed by Ben Dahl construction in Moorhead with electrical by C&R Electric in Fargo, with Stahl doing the remaining work himself, taking about two-and-a-half years to complete the studio.

“After my wife encouraged me out of the master bedroom because I was getting paint on everything, I said, ‘Okay, let’s take this garage roof off and I’ll build something out there,'” said Stahl. “So, I started taking the roof off, which is those wall planks and I thought, ‘Well that would be kind of cool if I can reuse them.’ So, that’s actually the old roof deck. I took the roof off, built a floor, walls, new rafters and everything. I wanted to make it look like an old barn loft or haymow.”

To give the old roof deck planks rustic character for the walls, Stahl used a power sprayer and applied a limited coat of paint without primer, which purposefully allowed the old water spots to come through. “I decided to leave it for that old barn look,” said Stahl. “I also wanted a vintage, wood plank floor. So, I researched how they did it 100 years ago using the rectangle cut nails and the nailing pattern and what not. They didn’t have round nails then. They were so precious that if a guy were to want to take a barn down and rebuild, they would actually burn the barn down to save the nails.”

Down to the Floorboards

To get the beautiful stain on his floor planks, Stahl went back to nature and his roots. Stahl was born in Oklahoma and grew up in South Dakota. After discovering that his parents were headed back to Oklahoma for a centennial, Stahl asked them to bring back a gallon of dirt. “The soil is so red down there,” said Stahl. “Barns used to be painted with red oxide, which is basically rust. Then they used milk and a couple other things, basically to keep things from growing on the wood. So, this is basically mud, there is no stain on these floor planks. I just wet it down and took a broom and went back and forth. So, this is Oklahoma, another part of my heritage. It’s basically a cherry stain on Douglas Fir plank. I was surprised and happy that it worked out. I actually applied a polyurethane over a little bit of it just for fun, because I wanted it to look older and I had to build in some of that age.”

Stahl Architects

At just under 400 square feet, Stahl’s studio embraces a simple but effective design with clean lines and plenty of character. To get creative, he purchased red, Target wastebaskets, drilling holes to create hanging pendants. “That’s probably one of the coolest features at night with the big windows,” said Stahl. “You can see the red glowing in here.”

Near the french doors is Stahl’s work station, as well as his wife Melanie’s desk where she works as his office manager.

Stahl and his wife have three kids–two daughters, one in eighth and one in seventh grade, as well as a son in fifth grade. Pointing out the imperfection in the wood floor planks, Stahl recalls when his son was in kindergarten and pounded on the planks leaving impressions in the wood. “I like these because it’s memories,” said Stahl. “It’s sort of the Wabi-sabi concept, it is the beauty in the making. That’s partly why you see planes and kites in here, those are specific memories attached to either my kids or my childhood.” The Wabi-sabi ideal is of Japanese origin, a concept that appreciates and finds beauty in the imperfections.

Among the Trees

For Stahl, the beauty is in the backyard of his one acre lot. Just beyond the entrance to the studio lies a nature preserve with a pond owned by the school.

Stahl Architects

“Hawley is a great community with a great school and beautiful parks,” said Stahl. “It tends to be a thriving bedroom community—the people that live here either work in Detroit Lakes or Fargo. It’s still a small town in feel, but with all the amenities of urban living.

Stahl Architects

Inside the studio, bursts of color come from the many bird houses Stahl made from scrap wood left over from trimming out the garage. Each one was painted by one of his three children.

Driven by Creativity

These days, Stahl is all about identifying his career as more of a creative outlet, trying to support his family through creative means, whether it’s making art, writing or even traveling.

Stahl Architects

“We’re pursuing some of those. We’re writing a couple of books: a murder-mystery and a spy novel. I met an Arabian architect; we’ve been heading back and forth to the Middle East and we’re currently pursuing with the United Nations in rebuilding Northern Iraq after the ISIS conflict. That’s been kind of crazy, but hopefully we can be part of that. That’s a whole different story and deserves a book in itself.”

The Art in Architecture

Noticing a trend in the connection between art and architecture, we asked Stahl if the two were always connected.

Phil Stahl Architects

“Yes, I think if you could draw a graph, there’d be an engineer and an artist. An architect falls in between there somewhere,” said Stahl. “The closer they get to an engineer, the more they become like a structural engineer, solving a pre-defined set of problems. The closer you get to the art, and it really depends on personality, then you get close to the artist type of architect. But the closer it gets to an artist, the less input he wants because this person wants more autonomy. A painter says, ‘I want to paint that and I want you to love it or hate it’ and then you have a 100 percent creative outcome, an ego-centric design. In architecture, I’m doing something for you. It’s not totally mine. It’s more yours, so I have to share that autonomy. So, they do go together. Design is the big picture, then it comes down to the details. A friend of mine and architect in Grand Forks, Scott Meland, writes songs instead of art. I found out that he uses the same kind of procedure for architecture that he does in creating his songs and lyrics.”

Phil Stahl Architects

“For me, architecture came first. I didn’t even draw architecture in high school, it was more like ninjas and stuff like that in the ’80s,” laughed Stahl.

Phil Stahl Architects

Stahl shares a need to create furniture just like former colleague and fellow architect Chris Hawley. Both have furniture from NDSU Surplus that has since been repurposed. A side table has been given new life with glass tile and a food service tray station has been repurposed to store his art pieces.

Phil Stahl Architects

“Him (Chris Hawley) and I would go together, they were usually two or three dollar items,” said Stahl. “We’d buy at them same time and then his mother Pam, a professional upholsterer from Minot, North Dakota, would redo the upholstery. She’s amazing. I still have some and have sold many of them.”

Perfection in the Details

“For some people, every once in a while you just get sick of the way your furniture is laid out and you want to move things around,” explained Stahl. “In an architect’s mind, there’s a perfect way that it’s set and functions the best, so once we get it there, we don’t want to ever move it. Also, architects usually hate their houses,” laughed Stahl. “Because you can’t do a perfect house and you can’t do your own.” Stahl knows many an architect who has built beautiful, award-winning homes and still didn’t like them. Saving the tour of his family’s home on the property for another time, Stahl insists it’s a work in progress.

About Phil Stahl

Phil Stahl graduated with an architecture degree from NDSU in 1994. After college, he worked for Johnson Laffen Meland Architects (now JLG) in Grand Forks, then Wild & Associates in Fargo. In 2000, he established his architecture firm, Stahl Architects, PLLC. For the past 22 years, Stahl has designed a broad range of commercial and residential projects and has become well known for his innovative design. Various homes have been featured in national magazines and television programs such as Dwell, Garden Design and HGTV. Stahl was awarded national American Institute of Architects Firm of the Year for Intern Development in 2005; he spoke nationally on topics such as developing Architect Interns.

In 2012, Stahl pursued an international passion by starting TriOmni Group International, a North Dakota based consortium specializing in US-IRAQ business relations, providing services of Project Management, Engineering, Architecture, and Consulting through a network of business professionals. Through his endeavor, Stahl helps build networks and procure work between appropriate US companies to Iraq businesses and developer groups looking for American know-how. His current network in Iraq/Jordan/Oman includes major electrical, construction contractors and oil services. They have met with various government entities within and around Iraq. Their current pursuits are efficiently designed oil stations for multi-well sites with EAPC, pursuing tenders in re-building infrastructure in Iraq, and a 3D concrete printer proof of concept for row housing in the Middle East.

Phil Stahl Architects

Phil Stahl Architects

Phil Stahl Architects

Phil Stahl Architects


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