Lessons in Small House Design

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The Carlsens built their cabin to be small, simple, and comfortable.
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Planning the loft space was one of the most important and challenging decisions faced by the Carlsens.
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The cabin’s main floor plan provides plenty of comfortable living space.
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The upper story of the cottage features an office and sitting space in addition to the main sleeping area.
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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.

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.

It isn’t fancy. It doesn’t try to make a social statement, as houses often do. A small efficient floor plan is all it needs.

Overlapping activities take place within the compact quarters. 

Thus a cabin promotes companionship and community spirit.

Everybody feels at home right away. 

A cabin’s furnishings are simple, often treasured family hand-me-downs. Its sleeping lofts, tucked under the eaves, evoke memories of childhood. Its fireplace or woodstove provides physical and emotional warmth.

These words jibe with where we’re headed. We have an awe-inspiring site. We want small. We want simple. We want comfortable. In Cabins David and Jeanie Stiles extol: “The cabin is a simple, sacred place where food and drink always taste better, where music sounds brighter, where evenings with loved ones linger longer into pleasure, where sleep is deep and dawn is fresh with wonders we’ve elsewhere forgotten.”

They got it right, too.

The average house built in the United States has 2,392 square feet. According to the National Association of Home Builders, that average house contains 13.97 tons of concrete, 13,127 board feet of framing lumber, 15 windows, 3 toilets and 3,100 square feet of shingles. There’s plenty of space for everything and everybody. If you fight with your spouse you can go to your corners.

But not so with a cabin with a footprint of 440 square feet; 600 square feet when you throw in the loft. A 16-by-20-foot cabin is 2 1/2 sheets of plywood running end to end and 4 sheets running side by side. It’s a space you can cross the short way in five strides. Doors are at a premium because there’s no place for them to swing. If you feud in a cabin that small, you’ve got no place to go. It’s a marriage counselor made of drywall.

A 16-by-20-foot cabin is small — but not as small as we (or I should say I ) had originally planned. The idea was to build something small and fast for starters — something that could later become a guesthouse. We’d build the real cabin later. The early doodles presumed a 12-by-12- foot cabin; a dwelling that could be built in a summer’s worth of weekends. The kitchen was a Coleman stove, wet bar sink, and dorm-size refrigerator. The bathroom was a toilet, with the water heater and pressure tank stacked in one corner. The bathroom sink was the kitchen sink. There was a small loft, accessed by a ladder. There was one door and six windows.

At 144 square feet it was similar to the cabin Thoreau built in 1845 for $28.12. But while he only needed room for himself, a bed, a writing desk, and three chairs named Solitude, Friendship, and Society, our needs weren’t quite as simple.

Kat was fine with the graph paper doodles of the 12-by-12-foot cabin. But when she took measuring tape and masking tape in hand and laid things out on our living room floor at home, her support of “small” got smaller. When she realized she’d nearly be able to load the woodstove from the toilet, the dissent began in earnest.

Freud, move over, because it was Kat’s and my very different childhoods that forged our attitudes toward size. I grew up in a typical middle-class Minneapolis suburban house. I had my own bedroom. We had a single-car garage, a kitchen with a snack bar, and one and a half bathrooms — nothing ostentatious, but absolutely comfortable. Kat grew up in a family of exceedingly modest means in the less than bucolic town of Bemidji, Minnesota. The house she grew up in was one her father bought, then moved to the lot where it still stands and where her mother lived until a few years ago. For the first year water came from a hand pump beside the kitchen sink. Her bedroom was a compact attic shared with two sisters. The whole thing was perched on a bump-your-head-if-you-stand-up basement. Kat had had her fill of small and dark. She had no intentions of going backward, and a cabin this small rang of reverse gear.

So we go up in size, working in 4-foot increments, because building materials work efficiently in 4-foot increments. We burn up the graph paper. We arrive at a size that’s still compact but has more breathing room.

I tack together a bread box–size version of the cabin. We cut little windows out of cardboard and tape them here and there. Model cabin in hand, we stomp around the land positioning it in different places and orientations. I use a machete to thin out a few dozen small birches; at a landscaping center in the cities they’d have a price tag of $129 each.

Funny how that works. Squinting helps us envision the views we’d have from each window and room. We set up a tall stepladder so we can try to picture the views from the loft. If we rotate the cabin clockwise we get a better view of the lake from the living room, but a worse view from the loft. If we move it away from the lake, the land becomes flatter and easier to build on, but hmmmm, that means we’re farther from the lake. We tweak the design based on what we see and feel.

This is no small decision. This will be the first dwelling on this land. Ojibwe had lived in the area for over 600 years, but it’s doubtful they would have built one of their birch-bark wigwams on this plot overlooking Gitchi (big) Gummi (water) — too damn steep. French explorers, trappers, and missionaries began roaming the area in the late 1600s, but if any of them had wanted to build a shelter, they would have stomped the quarter mile to the flat, sensible terrain of the old campground. Swedish and Norwegian immigrants began flocking to the area in the 1800s, but they too would have settled on land where their fishing boats and fishing sheds had easier access to the lake. The lumberjacks who arrived in the 1880s surely would have logged the 100-foot-tall white pine from the land, part of the 67 billion board feet of lumber harvested in Minnesota during the boom. And while the steep land would have made it easy to slide logs into Superior for the trip to the mill, the loggers would have rested their seesaw-weary bones in one of the logging camps near Beaver Bay. We were the first people unhinged enough to give it a whirl.

Designing the cabin is an ongoing process of give-and-take, of determining priorities, of trust, of love. Kat loves to cook, so the kitchen begins claiming more square footage. I need a mini-office for writing, so the loft grows a 4-foot leg for a desk. We love the lake views, so we incorporate a window seat, decks on two sides, and lots of windows. I like old wood and architectural antiques, so we keep the plan fluid enough to accommodate discoveries. We try to strike a balance between making good use of small nooks but not making it so space efficient it feels like a Winnebago.

The stairway drives much of the design. The 40 square feet it will occupy represents a whopping 10 percent of the floor space. The headroom in the loft will be low, making it impossible to position the stairway on an outside wall where the roof slopes down to meet the second floor knee walls. Placing it in the middle of the cabin will divide the already small space into two even smaller spaces. A ladder will take up only a quarter of the space, but looking to the future, we can’t picture ourselves climbing a ladder with a cane in one hand and morning cup of coffee in the other. We doodle, erase, and rethink the overall plan — but the pencil just isn’t sharp enough.

We raise the white flag and pay a visit to Katherine Hillbrand, an architect and interior designer with SALA Architects. We’ve loved working with Katherine on past projects because she has a knack for walking the line between solid design and whimsy. She thinks architecture should be fun. She has a way of adding a few unique details that turn a good design into a great one. Her mental search engine shows her right where to go with our stair problem. On the spot she breaks out her omnipresent roll of vellum paper and electric imagination and scratches out three good options.

The one we like most has an L-shaped stairway nestled along the bathroom wall with its final ascent paralleling that of the roof. There’s not an inch of wasted space: A rollout pantry can tuck under the stairs next to a Lilliputian refrigerator. There’s a little nook that could be turned into a coffee cup shelf. And look, there’s a place on the landing for the round, stained glass parrot window impulsively bought at an antique store.

All the planning makes me drift back to the cabin my folks bought on Lake Waverly years before. Oma Tupa — when finished — will be the same size as theirs; both are perched on bodies of water; both are small and cozy. But they differ big time in terms of the neighborhood. The nearest dwelling to ours, Dick and Jean’s house, will be a good 800 feet away. My parents’ cabin was flanked on each side by cabins less than 15 feet away.

Excerpted from Cabin Lessons © Spike Carlsen. Illustrations by © Michael Gellatly. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.