When Vessela Kouneva and Kalin Kounev took an afternoon to check out a property in the Brainerd lakes area eight years ago, they didn’t realize what a fateful appointment it would be — both for home and homeowners.
The couple — based in the Twin Cities metro, originally from Bulgaria — said they weren't drawn to the property for any particular reason. Neither of them had any plans to settle roots in the rural backcountry of Minnesota, but they said there was something intriguing about the 5,000-square-foot home and the 2-acre homestead southeast of Brainerd — for him, because of its one-of-kind construction and an emphasis on green technologies; for her, because of its fusion of manmade precision and natural verve that made it visually striking.
“I don’t know what I was looking for, but one day in 2012 I saw pictures of this house. It was for sale at the time and when I saw the wind generator, the solar panels, the geothermal and there were some pictures of the space — I was like, wow, this is amazing!” Kouneva said as she gave a tour of the spacious interior that hybridizes rustic naturalism with a sort of geometric futurism reminiscent of NASA or “Stars Wars.” “We fell in love. This was totally out of character for us. It was like a dream.”
As it turns out, the couple were uniquely suited to be stewards of the ecological estate.
The homestead in question is a geodesic dome home off County Highway 23, the brainchild of businessman David Winkelman, who spent $1.75 million in the late ‘90s to develop a property of cutting-edge technology that functions perfectly in harmony with nature, not as an invasive blip of humanity in the ecosystem as homes often are.
The finished product, completed in 1999, is a 5,174-square-foot double-dome with an open floor plan, kitchen, four bedrooms and 30-foot ceilings in the great room, complete with 18-inch-thick walls and a geodesic design that renders it the strongest kind of structure that can be built — all of it composed of seven different varieties of unvarnished wood harvested from the property itself, so as to minimize waste and indoor pollution. It also lends the interior a fragrant ambience of the outdoors.
“It's wonderful to come up here and just spend the weekend,” Kouneva said of the property, which the couple uses as a vacation home and pad to host tours or guests.
Kounev noted the property features a host of large windows to bathe the interior with natural light, indoor flower beds, a garage, a 10-spot parking lot, manmade ponds and bubbling artistic fountains, a greenhouse dome, a backup wood burner, storage shed and tornado shelter.
In total, the property contains no less than 20 conservation technologies. That’s water purification systems, composting toilets, solar panels, two forms of geothermal generation (one of which is directly rooted in the manmade pond and feeds the basement floor), as well as a towering wind turbine — all of which, Kounev noted, means they sell electricity to the power company and not the other way around. For a home that’s close to 6,000 square feet in heating space, Kounev said, there are so many efficiencies hardwired into the system that it’s more like maintaining living conditions inside a smaller 2,000 square foot home. Many of these technologies are unique or feature a unique construction in conjunction with the rest of the house that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
So, in 2012, when it was determined some of these technologies were in dire need of maintenance and repair, it wasn’t simply a matter that could be handed over to a local handyman. That’s where a bit of serendipity came into play. Among the few people in Minnesota with the opportunity to handle such unique, complex, and vital technologies, who better than Kounev, a mechanical engineer with experience in a litany of fields?
“I have a lot of interest in different fields. And for me, the most interesting part of everything is just to solve problems. Give me the problem,” Kounev said. “It can be some equipment which has to be designed, or say fix a house with some unique problem. When we moved here, it was one year or one and a half that nobody had lived here. There were a lot of problems that had to be solved, a lot of the equipment actually isn't working. I had no documentation, nothing for our wind generators, or solar panels, or for how this is built very uniquely. The Exxon repair men are not qualified.”
Now all those problems are solved, Kounev said, and the home’s unique assortment of technologies look to function smoothly for some time.
Solving problems seems to be a common thread in the couple’s relationship — though, Kounev’s projects often rest in the realm of circuitry and product design, while Kouneva’s problems typically involve how humans are hardwired. Trained as a psychologist — which are sometimes referred, quite aptly here, as “dome doctors” — Kouneva specializes in family and marriage therapy.
It was, in many respects, this problem-solving impulse that brought them together. Another twist of serendipity that had all the hallmarks of an actual Hallmark film. Decades ago, back in Bulgaria, in the capital of Sofia, Kouneva said a friend who was pregnant at the time had escaped an abusive relationship and came to stay. To solve the problem of her friend’s unhappiness, Kouneva’s solution was a day out in the town to cheer her spirits and keep her mind off troubles at home.
It was this chance venture out into town that Kouneva came across a group of kindly strangers who were friends, among them Kalin Kounev.
“He suggested to play cards and it turned out that my friend cannot play the little game that they suggested. Then my (future) husband said ‘Well, no problem. I'm going to teach you.’ So, he starts teaching my pregnant friend who is really so sad and really in a bad place and he did so patiently, and so gently. … I was very impressed with his personality and with, you know, with his looks.”
The attraction was immediate, the couple said, and they enjoyed a great conversation over cards, but neither side mustered the nerve to ask for the other’s phone number. Somewhat dejected and disappointed with herself, Kouneva said she got something of a makeover, dressed up with a new curly hair style for a day at the movies, when she ran into Kounev on the way to the theater.
“I walk outside of my apartment, just take a few steps and I literally bumped into him on the street,” Kouneva said. “He said, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ I said ‘Well, I live in this village. What are you doing here?; ‘Oh I just visited a friend who lives nearby.’ It was just like fate.”
Another twist of serendipity came later when the couple won a green card visa to the United States through a green card lottery. After spending a couple months convincing her husband to take the leap, Kouneva and Kounev — with their daughter Gabriella, 2 at the time — ventured toward a country quite unlike Bulgaria. Here, in America, Kouneva said, everything is bigger — bigger landscapes, bigger stores, bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger portion sizes.
Originally, the couple believed they would probably settle in some well-known coastal area of the country like New York or Los Angeles, but their sponsor — a man they had never met personally before — lived in a strange place called Plymouth, Minnesota. Kouneva and Kounev laughed at the memory, recollecting how they didn’t know what Minnesota was and couldn’t find Plymouth on a map, so they assumed it was some backwater village.
Oh well, they told themselves, they would stop in this village called Plymouth for a spell, then they would plant roots in Los Angeles or New York.
Twenty-five years passed, and as the couple chatted in the main living area of their Brainerd home, they had to admit, with a smile, nothing had gone to plan.
Still, they said, Minnesota was a wonderful place to settle, even with its frigid winter temperatures and somewhat colder social demeanors, the people of this state tucked into the northern Midwest proved to be friendly, welcoming, and willing to offer a sense of belonging to the kind of people who struggle to find it — immigrants.
But, it wasn’t easy at first. Despite being highly educated, Kounev and Kouneva found themselves in a situation where many immigrants find themselves on foreign shores — struggling financially, with few connections and little job prospects, all tied together with a limited understanding of the local culture and a shaky ability to speak the dominant language.
“He was a mechanical engineer in Bulgaria and I was a psychologist when we came here,” Koneva said. “We had to start from scratch. We found a job in a warehouse, then gradually I found a job in a group home. It took a few years. It was tough in the beginning. It was an adventure.”
Now, more than two and a half decades later, the couple say they may be heading back to Bulgaria for a prosperous retirement among old friends and older family. They’re selling the geodesic dome home for $449,000. The unique property southeast of Brainerd — while a marvel of a homestead filled with wonder and good memories over the years — needs a new steward. It’s time.