In a talk he gave at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture several years ago, David Salmela, FAIA, was describing the tall outdoor chimneys that trademark some of his projects. They’re poetic, he told his listeners. But they also create a great excuse to go outside and sit around the fire. “They’re a sculptural object with a comfortable use—to visit and talk and sing,” he said.

That also sums up the allure of his houses. Inspired by the cold climate of Duluth, Minn., clear light, and the Scandinavian roots he shares with others in the region, Salmela’s buildings have that rare quality of being modern yet emotionally familiar. He interprets the authenticity of place through modernist massing, richly crafted materials, and a deep understanding of the patterns of sunlight at this latitude.

Down-to-earth and intent on doing good work, Salmela is more interested in satisfying his clients’ needs than in making ego-gratifying statements. He holds as his biggest accomplishment that his clients love their houses, not the number of awards he’s won—though there are many, and the approval of critics is proof, even to himself, that architects can do important work with modest budgets and on the edge of the wilderness.

What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?

The longevity of a project—when the client still likes it after many years and we continue to give tours.

What is the most frustrating aspect?

When subsequent owners do insensitive alterations.

What is your mission statement or firm goal?

To produce work that is regarded as architecture, above mere function.

What is the most indispensable tool in your office?

Pencil and bumwad.

What software does your firm use?

AutoCAD LT 2010 for construction drawings.

Who is your ideal client?

Someone who’s broad-minded and knowledgeable about their program.

What is your favorite building?

Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto and the Bird’s Nest (Beijing National Stadium) by Herzog & de Meuron.