Lessons in Small House Design

A couple shares their experience in designing floor plan for their small cottage on the shore of Lake Superior.

  • The Carlsens built their cabin to be small, simple, and comfortable.
    Photo by Spike Carlsen
  • Planning the loft space was one of the most important and challenging decisions faced by the Carlsens.
    Photo by Spike Carlsen
  • The cabin’s main floor plan provides plenty of comfortable living space.
    Illustration by Michael Gellatly
  • The upper story of the cottage features an office and sitting space in addition to the main sleeping area.
    Illustration by Michael Gellatly
  • Part building guide and part memoir, “Cabin Lessons” details Spike and Kat Carlsen’s experiences, from purchasing land to designing their 600-square-foot retreat.
    Cover courtesy Storey Publishing

The idea of a cabin is romantic and idealistic; and considering the hectic pace and often-frustrating complications of our modern lives, who wouldn’t want a beautiful, quiet place to retreat to? Cabin Lessons (Storey Press, 2105) traces a couple’s steps and missteps as they plunge headlong into the building of their dream cabin. In this excerpt from chapter 2 “Designing Small,” author Spike Carlsen writes about the difficulties he and his wife, Kat, faced in the early stages of designing their small cottage.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Cabin Lessons.

In his book The Cabin, architect and cabinologist Dale Mulfinger outlines what he feels are the minimum qualifications for a dwelling to be considered a cabin:

The site is chosen for its natural beauty.

 A cabin offers easy access to the outdoors, both through exterior rooms and through great views from the inside. A cabin adds to the land, never dominating it.

A cabin provides simple, basic shelter.

10/19/2018 9:17:30 AM

First, let me start by stating the obvious: the final decision rests with the homeowner/s, and all mileage may vary. So, from that point, here are my personal thoughts. Intellectually, financially, and ecologically, I appreciate the hell out of smaller home designs. I can even relate to beginning with an "ideal" and proceeding through back-and-forth discussions, compromise, and multiple increases in size, shape, and features. That said, I start out with issues regarding not only ladders, but stairs as well, and would prefer to consider eventual decreases in already limited tolerance for second floor spaces. Then there's the bathroom, which is nowhere near the bedroom - yeah, I get that it's a total of 600 square feet, but it's on a totally separate level! Yes, I understand that there is a different level of tolerance - or enjoyment - for a weekend getaway versus a permanent residence. But it would be necessary (for me) to have a shower that can be used for bathing, rather than squeezing into a space adequate only for standing under a downpour because there's insufficient room to raise the arms to head level, or the feet to hand level. Having dealt with way too many years of laundromat commutes, I cheered for the laundry capability - even though, in my opinion, the lack of space to fold or hang the laundry once it's clean is a drawback (folding clothes on the bed just means both bed and clothes instantly become playground/gymnasium for Dammit the Cat, as well as a strain on back, hips, and legs), and stacked machines seem to harbor homicidal intent toward me. I like the kitchen, even with the stated "Lilliputian" refrigerator, although since I live alone (except for the cat) and love to cook, even with a standard-size fridge, I object rather strenuously to eating the same meal for a week without variation - I'm thinking of a crockpot of beef stew here! I love that this design does not fall into the trap of having not only a breakfast bar, but also a kitchen table, a dining room, and a picnic table on the deck. This seems, well, far more user-friendly, and a large step up from the former friend who habitually ate standing over the kitchen sink. Window seats are a comfort, a place of lazy enjoyment, and nostalgic, as are either wood stoves or fireplaces - as well as a welcome spot to indulge in the occasional hotdog or bowl of popcorn - not to mention a pot of soup! Still, it strikes me that there is not a lot of storage here, for things such as clothing or bed and bath linens; no broom closet, and - a favorite of mine - no coat closet near the door, either front or back. I suppose it is possible to survive the weekend out of a suitcase or backpack, but it wouldn't be my first, or even second, choice. Should I be so fortunate as to have a weekend getaway cabin, I would prefer to leave at least some clothing in place so as to avoid the necessity of packing and unpacking, repeatedly. When my boys were (much) younger and we camped most weekends, the camping stuff (OK, except for clothes) lived in the VW pop-up camper - which made leaving far more fun (and many times, more spontaneous), and prevented a lot of "forgotten" necessities, despite checklists. But this is an obviously well-thought-through design, which one assumes suits the owners, and I thank you for sharing both the story and the plans.

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