Creativity Without Compromise

Michael Anschel
President, Otogawa-Anschel
Born January 2, 1974 (now 31 years old)

Michael Anschel is a remodeler of the new school: a self-taught, award-winning designer who doesn't bid on projects, spends up to a year on the design phase alone, and is so serious about green building that he refuses to work with many materials that comprise other remodelers' bread and butter. These include vinyl windows and siding (“cheap products that fall apart”), Corian (“a pure petroleum product,” “a fad”), and asphalt shingles (non-recyclable, heat-absorbing, and “terrible for the structure of the house”). He also shuns ipé, an expensive Brazilian hardwood mined — harmfully and pointlessly, Anschel believes — from rain forests.

A former sculpture major who spent more than three years teaching English in Japan and China, Anschel follows a design aesthetic influenced by the Japanese garden, which he describes as “a very, very small area, but you can't see all of it from any one point. You have to move all around it and through it, and that's what makes it feel larger.” He relishes using “clever visual tricks” — inventive use of color, half-walls, cut-outs, flooring — in the “incredibly well-built” four-squares and bungalows of Minneapolis's older urban neighborhoods. Anschel is “committed to using the resources at hand” rather than doing big additions or new construction, and reuses existing materials where possible. He rarely accepts projects more than 15 minutes from his office and does “a fair amount of consulting” for $110 per hour.

Michael Anschel
John Noltner Michael Anschel

But he's no elitist snob. The 31-year-old Anschel, who founded his seven-employee, $1.5 million company in 1997, does volunteer work at least one day a week and led the effort to strengthen the marketing focus of his local NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) chapter. And whereas many established remodelers aspire to do projects on a bigger and more lucrative scale, Anschel wants to decrease his average project size, currently about $180,000. “If you [only] take on giant projects, what you're saying is that anybody who has a smaller house, a modest project, doesn't have access to great design and workmanship,” he explains. He has done a few projects in the $5,000 range and a recent kitchen remodel for $26,000 — “a real challenge,” he says, given that his kitchens usually cost between $50,000 and $100,000.

The mission to provide good design for all also frequently entails waiving his usual consulting fee when he sees an opportunity to educate homeowners whose old homes have been poorly remodeled in the past. Anschel believes that the remodeling industry as a whole is to blame for shoddy work, by short-sightedly bidding on jobs where hidden problems can't be anticipated, as well as by resisting licensing and regulation. “Every time we go into a house and see a hack job, well, we have a responsibility” to explain how the work should have been done, he says.

It's that study in contrast — selective yet inclusive; reverential yet innovative — that makes Anschel a source of both admiration and discomfort among his peers. “Michael is one of the young turks,” says Kathleen Laurila, executive director of NARI of Minnesota. “And any young turk who comes on in a big way, which he has done, is going to ruffle some feathers [among] the old guard.”

But few remodelers would deny what Anschel's peer (and “3 Under 30” designee of 2004) Shawn Nelson calls his “very innovative flair” for aesthetics and construction procedures. Terry Blessing, who started his company before Anschel was even born, admires “the freshness of Michael's approach. His design finishes are quite elaborate — pretty amazing, actually.” An example might be a master-suite conversion featuring 37 wall colors. “I had a client who, after seeing that project, wanted no less than 40 colors,” Anschel remarks.

As for construction procedures, Anschel says “we're willing to look at problem-solving in a different way.” For instance, instead of sistering new joists into the ceiling to support a new level in a one-story home, he convinced the city of Minneapolis to approve a method of beefing up existing 2x4 ceiling joists by adding a double layer of ¾-inch tongue-and-groove plywood with a tight screw pattern. The result is “incredibly strong,” he says. “Five or six engineers from the city jumped up and down on it.”

The method helps preserve the plaster ceiling below as well, something Anschel's clients appreciate.