August 22, 2013 | Vol. 39, No. 34

Home and Garden Edition, 2013

The eye of the designer: Thirty years of home design and construction in Petersburg with Dieter Klose

Designer-builder, sailor, skier and mountain climber, Dieter Klose, has best left his mark on Petersburg in the form of distinctive architecture.

Suzanne Ashe / For Petersburg Pilot
Dieter Klose

From the cantilevered Troll Bridge of Sandy Beach Park to the numerous homes, businesses, and even a church, Klose uses his expertise in building, his passion for natural landscape and an eye for detail, to make the most of each building he creates.

To understand Klose’s designs, it’s best to look back at the architectural inspiration of the community -- Norwegian design.

While rows of fishermens’ cottages and boathouses may offer visual harmony, with their poky, little rooms, petite windows, and steep roofs to let the snow slide off, their design just isn’t practical for the area.

One of the biggest challenges to designing homes here is the sun, and lack of direct sunlight, Klose said.

“What I usually tell a client is 75 percent of the time, we don’t have direct sunbeams coming into the windows. We have a gray model here that is the same brightness to the south, as it is to the north. If you have a view of the north, I say ‘load ‘er up with windows, don’t envision your house very often with sunbeams in your house. Let’s illuminate your house, and depending where you are, you’ll receive sunbeams,” he said.

Norwegian houses are very charming, they are built with wood so they can move with the weather. The homes feature slate roofing, and strong primary colors (red, blue or yellow). These colors are prevalent all around Petersburg, and used in Klose’s buildings. White is also very popular like in the Main Street building that houses Viking Travel and Sea Monster Video, which was designed by Klose.

Fitting a house, or building, into the geography of “Alaska’s Little Norway,” is about a lot more than color, it’s about functionality too.

“We have mega snow here. What used to be done, is that the Norwegian [buildings] would shed snow a lot with beveled roofs. But, I prefer to engineer a roof to hold the snow, so that we have no avalanches. That’s the main reason... it’s not for insulation because the roof is cold.” said the tall, slender and decisively shy, father of two.

The design elements Klose employs enable his buildings to receive a Five Star Design Rating (FSDR) for energy efficiency. According to Klose, his rooms are designed super-airtight, super-insulated with a ventilation system. “It’s kind of like forced air, but it’s not, it’s fresh air, because you’re living in a plastic bag to keep the heat in. And then the ventilation system goes through a heat exchanger. It pulls air out of the house and lets fresh air in, but in a balanced way. You have a very controlled environment,” he said.

Winter not only brings snow, but also ice, Klose said, “The buildings that get built here, like the hospital, the airport, they all have icicles. None of my buildings have icicles. Simply by following these tenets of construction, where you ventilate the roof to be cold, you won’t get icicles.”

Learning to design

Klose grew up in Virginia, he was very close to his father a German immigrant and a general contractor, who gave Klose his first job. “I basically was self-taught; I didn’t have any formal education,” he said. “I’m a natural, I find, in design. I was always building, since I was 5 years old or so. It’s just a natural thing.”

Klose said his father had him running residential construction projects at age 16. And when he got a little older he became inspired to travel and become a mountain climber. For years, he lived out of a van, and built things and climbed, he said.

Klose first came to Alaska in the 1970s. He moved to Petersburg in 1983 to climb Devil’s Thumb. According to the Juneau Empire, Klose is known as the "Father of Devil’s Thumb," because of his expertise and experience on climbing the peak.

For a while, Klose had a workshop on Kupreanof, then he floated the shop over to Mitkof and built-up a custom furniture business. Later, Klose and Gary Aulbach built a house for Jeff Muecci. Klose turned his attention more to design, and eventually he and Aulbach bought Jimmy Swainson’s construction business. That business brought plenty of clients, Klose said.

“One of the fortes that people get from me, compared to a regular architect, is that architects in the U.S. are not required to build anything,” Klose said. “I came more from more of a building aspect of things; knowing what works and what doesn’t structurally.”

The list of the buildings and homes Klose has designed in the past 30 years include three for himself on Sandy Beach, and several more with a view to Devil’s Thumb, also homes along Mitkof Highway, on Wrangell Avenue and around downtown, the Bible Church and three homes in British Columbia, Canada.

“I work for the client and I draw my interpretation of what they want and then add my own knowledge to what they want. It’s an interesting vignette, that oftentimes we’ll have a short meeting ... then a longer meeting where I ask them what they do and don’t like. They bring pictures if they want, all of this, if they have a layout ... and then I’ll give them a rough estimate of what it would cost,” he said.

“Then I’ll spend several weeks pondering, or drawing, it depends. And I’ll often come up with the answer. Then, and it’s happened many times, the husband, or the wife, wants these changes, here or there. And then these changes snowball and it’s been interesting because we go through all of this ...  and initially I can say this is going to mess up this window and that door. But they say, try to do it, and we’ll come full circle all the way back to the original design,” he said.

Klose, who charges an hourly rate, said he wished he had some psychology education when dealing with couples. “If they’re building a first house, they’re finding out they have different tastes,” he said. “I try to mediate what they want ... I’ll walk the lot, I’ll think about it. Sometimes things won’t hit me for a month or two, and I just won’t start. If I’m not feeling artistic, I won’t work.”

One couple Klose worked with is Fred and Sue Paulsen. “It was marvelous working with him, Dieter is a good listener,” said Sue Paulsen, whose home was featured in an earlier issue of the Pilot’s Home Edition.

“He conducts an interview with you,” she said. “And he’s flexible and changeable as you go along ... He’s a man who does research.”

Paulsen said she wanted to incorporate Scandinavian symmetry into her Sandy Beach home. “He knew something about it, but he also did his research,” she said.

But it wasn’t just the design of the home that interested Klose, he also took the location into consideration.

“He did something really fabulous,” Paulsen said. “He studied the lot, he walked around the lot and he put up windows so you could see what things would really look like. It’s hard to tell from just putting that down on paper.”

Style, Fashion and Function

Klose’s approach to design is not swayed by trends, but rather by experience.

“The difference between style, fashion and function; fashion having zero value in my mind. Fashion having a ‘one’ out of 10 in my mind, and function having a 10-plus. You know the old adage ‘form follows function?’ I almost always adhere to that,” he said.

Klose makes exceptions for clients who are budget restricted. Clients will often want a 5,000-square-foot house, but have a budget of $250,000, he said.

“I’ll say, we can build you a 2,000-square-foot house, of quality, or a mediocre quality for $200,000,” he said.

Even with budget constraints, Klose has been able to design and build, or oversee construction, on more than 30 buildings here. “Sometimes there is just enough little tricks to play on that cheap house to enhance, like add a scissor vault to a truss [ceiling], that won’t cost much more and then evolve this room, or these windows that will change the entire room -- the entire inside feeling,” he said.

Klose’s methodology also seems to work well with the particular geographical constraints of Petersburg.

“Challenges include the ground, the earth, but that’s easily answered with pilings or concrete,” he said. “The answer to most of the area’s challenges is to not have a basement,” he said.

Another trick Klose uses in his designs is overhangs, this alone adds to the longevity of the building. “A lot of people will take a house from a plan and build it here, and have no overhangs, and have rot problems within 50 years. My houses should last 200 years. If you put [in] a good foundation and roof, and keep the elements out of it, yes, 200 years,” he said.

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