Author Archives: J. Michael Welton


The Great ESCAPE—A Prairie-Style Cabin on Wheels

See how a 400-square-foot cabin—designed on a human scale and with style to spare—can be spacious, inexpensive, and even movable.

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay Escape

Meticulous is the word that comes immediately to mind when you first see ESCAPE, the cabin-on-wheels designed by SALA Architects in conjunction with Dan Dobrowolski, owner of the luxurious Canoe Bay resort in Chetek, Wisconsin.

The tiny 400-square-foot structure, informed and inspired by the Prairie style, is the culmination of more than two thoughtful decades during which Dobrowolski oversaw the building or renovation of 17 structures at the resort, including a lodge, a restaurant, and a collection of gem-like cottages. Canoe Bay was at first an ambitious, learn-by-doing enterprise for the network meteorologist turned hotelier. Over time, the resort’s architecture matured into a sophisticated, cohesive aesthetic that is reflected in the design of ESCAPE.

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“Twenty years ago, I bought an abandoned church camp and developed it into a world-class hotel and restaurant,” he says. “We’re in Wisconsin, home of Frank Lloyd Wright, so we adopted our native son’s architectural style for our property.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

Showing savvy design instinct in his vision for Canoe Bay, Dobrowolski recruited Wright protégé John Rattenbury, a cofounder of Taliesin Architects in Arizona. He then brought in Kelly Davis from SALA Architects in Stillwater, Wisconsin.

Their designs paid off in spades, as the evolving architectural language they’ve articulated is immensely popular today. Five thousand people pass through Canoe Bay every year, pausing to stay in Dobrowolski’s carefully crafted cottages, to enjoy the outdoor life on three lakes tucked into 300 acres, and to commune with eagles, otters, and bears out in the middle of nowhere.

And now they also come to admire the ESCAPE.

Although the little home takes its cues from the standard park model recreational vehicle (RV), it doesn’t suffer from the standard claustrophobic interiors, usually the result of attempting to cram in every possible luxury, appliance, and gadget known to mankind.

No, this cozy structure has been deliberately built to feel spacious, an effect achieved in part by its cathedral ceiling, but also by its simplicity; the interior is stripped down to the basics without sacrificing style or scale. “It’s a different kind of animal,” Dobrowolski says. “We came at it from a different angle—from the building side.”

A park model RV—taxed as personal property rather than real estate—is restricted by law to a size of just 400 square feet of enclosed space, excluding a porch or deck. So the designers and builders had to adapt. “We decided to see if we could make our architecture fit that size,” he says.

First, they designed ESCAPE on a human scale, despite the limitations of its 14-foot-by-28½-foot dimensions (14 by 40 with the optional screened porch). Second, they did not scrimp on either materials or features. ESCAPE is clad in cedar outside and yellow pine inside, with oak floors. There’s built-in cabinetry everywhere, and a fireplace crafted from weathered aluminum sits in a corner of the main living area. In the bedroom, a huge armoire provides both drawers and hanging space. The full-size kitchen accommodates a standard 30-inch range, and the expansive bath includes such amenities as a walk-in tile shower, a double vanity, and a separate toilet room. “Everything is normal-sized, with high-quality elements,” he says. “It’s built for real people—I’m a big person, and Wisconsin has a lot of full-sized people, so that’s the way it’s built.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

To say that ESCAPE is energy efficient is like saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was somewhat gifted. The prototype now on-site at Canoe Bay requires very little electricity. In fact, with every LED on, the lighting uses perhaps 120 watts total, and the entire home could be solar-powered. “The refrigerator and television would eat up most of the energy,” Dobrowolski says. “The energy bills for this prototype have never met the minimum bill of 30 bucks—it’s never gotten close.”

ESCAPE is constructed in the same manner as a traditional stick-built home, with a balloon frame and standard windows, trusses, roofing, siding, and floors. It just happens to lie on top of a steel frame on wheels. “It complies with the federal code, just like an RV,” he says. “It can be pulled anywhere—and the wheels can stay on, with a plywood skirt that covers them.”

Canoe Bay Escape

Photo: Canoe Bay

At 22,000 pounds, however, it’s not something that can be towed around on the rear of a pickup. Like a mobile home, ESCAPE requires the power of an over-the-road tractor to get it where it’s going. But once on-site, setup is essentially a “plug and play” process for plumbing, wiring, and the like. “It takes four to five hours, and we’re done,” he says. “You can take the wheels off if you want, and the hitch too.”

A stripped-down model, sans screened porch, starts out at $79,000. Add the porch, a heated floor for the bath, and all the furnishings, and ESCAPE can top out at $124,000, window coverings included. “You have to bring your own clothes,” he says. “But then you’re ready to have fun.”

ESCAPE can be financed as you would a car or RV, rather than with a mortgage. The monthly payments, he says, are less than the rent for a one-bedroom apartment. Better yet—and unlike an apartment—the ESCAPE can be moved if need be.

Dobrowolski says he’s been surprised by the “tsunami” of demand for the little building since its debut late last year, but he believes he’s hit a nerve. So far, he’s received commitments for more than 100 units, a number of them destined for large campgrounds and resorts out West.

“I’ve immediately solved their problems,” he says. “If I deliver 20 of these to them, then they’ve got an instant resort.”

If only, he says with perfect hindsight, he’d thought of it 20 years ago.

 

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.


Deconstruction and Smart Planning Brings New Light (and Life) to a Raleigh, N.C., Home

A heavily wooded lot and a poorly built house steered a North Carolina couple toward deconstructing the existing dwelling to erect in its place a new, light-filled gem of a home.

Photo:

A Raleigh, N.C., couple’s desire for dappled sunlight—thwarted by poorly placed windows in their 1990s house, which was already in horrendous shape—spurred them to build a new, contemporary home on its existing footprint.

“The natural light was there, but it couldn’t be appreciated because the old house had no windows on the south side,” says Angela Hodge, who with her husband had bought the house—their first—in 1999.

The master bedroom suite on the southwest side was the one exception. “That bathroom was nice and bright all the time—the brightest spot in the house,” she says. “But I didn’t hang out in the bathroom all the time.”

Spring Residence Original

Original house prior to deconstruction.

After living there for 10 years, the couple stepped back to take stock of the residence, whose builder clearly must have been in a hurry to throw it together. “As you live in a place, you begin to see its quirks and faults, its good points and bad points,” she says. “This house just wasn’t that well built, with various things like mold and other stuff going wrong.”

“It had Masonite siding and rotting windows, with west-facing, large Palladian windows and solar issues addressed really poorly,” says Erik Mehlman, principal in BuildSense, a design/build firm in nearby Durham that the couple had encountered at a 2009 Green Home Tour. “They had a good sense about the particular house we were in, and what we were ultimately hoping to accomplish,” Hodge says. “So we asked Mehlman to come to the house for a walk-through.”

“It was a production builder’s house, a plan-book house meant for a flat site,” says Mehlman, “but it was on a steep slope.” Underneath the home was a crawl space, 4 feet deep at one end and 12 feet deep at the other.

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Discussions ensued about whether it would be best to sell the home, then find another lot and build there. But the clients kept coming back to their heavily wooded site with its mature trees and the light that trickled down through the leafy canopy. Clearly, they did not want to leave it. After careful consideration and weighing of options, the architects conceded, opting to stay on site and rebuild.

One of the initial challenges was the house’s location. Because the home was located near a U.S. Corps of Engineers lake and in a buffer zone for an old streambed, the architects had to respect the home’s existing footprint. Initially, they decided to build atop the crawl space and foundation.

Spring Residence - Living Room

An open plan, ample outdoor spaces, and expanses of windows blur the lines between indoors and out. Photo:

“We said: Let’s take it down to the floor system of the first floor, leave the foundation and masonry work and crawl space, put the floor joists on top of that, then the walls, and then the roof,” Mehlman says. “We wouldn’t have to move the driveway, and we’d avoid site work and the money involved in that.”

Then the client came to them with a request for a guest room in the crawl space, and a wood shop too. The architects began to reconsider. Before long, they ended up digging out the crawl space to create a full, 2,500-square-foot basement with 8-foot-tall ceilings. The space offered a guest room, wood shop, mechanical room, wine cellar, and greenhouse with southern exposure and skylights.

Rather than demolish the home, the architects deconstructed it. They removed the brick and reused it. They saved all the wood framing and built the main staircase out of old studs. “It’s a direct visual link to the old house,” he says. What couldn’t be used was donated to Habitat for Humanity.

As the architects’ vision was coming into place, the homeowners were having a similar shift in design sensibilities—from antiques and clutter to lean, modern, and contemporary. “I call it my Southern Living phase, and actually I guess it really wasn’t me,” Hodge says. “But then I started seeing spaces in homes I visited that were different—streamlined, visually simpler, without a lot of ornate stuff going on—and I responded to that aesthetic better. It was calmer, and resonated with me.”

“They brought us a stack of Atomic Ranch magazines,” Mehlman says. “Then Angela asked if I’d heard of the Japanese engawa way of circulation. It blurs the lines of interior and exterior spaces, and she wanted to experience the outside as much as inside.”

Spring Residence Perforated Aluminum Panels

Perforated aluminum panels distribute light throughout the home. Photo:

So began the design phase. BuildSense started to dissect what makes an Atomic Ranch house—what it is and what, precisely, the client liked about it. Primary candidates were the low, sloping roof, the abundance of decks, and the aesthetic strength of a large masonry unit, inside to out. Instead of focusing on a heavy element, however, the architects listened to what both the clients and site were saying about light. They proposed a three-story tower built of perforated aluminum panels. Lacy and bright, the 16′ x 20′ structure forms an illuminated beacon that pierces all three stories of the new home.

“That light box defines the entry,” Mehlman says. “It’s a good orientation device that brings light in during the day, and at night it’s like a lantern to the street.”

It’s also helpful for finding one’s way up to the third-floor catwalk that leads outdoors to a platform and the telescope that the client required.

But mostly, this is a tower that’s all about dappled light.

 

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com


Mountain Re-Shack: An Abandoned Outbuilding Becomes Home

Architect Chad Everhart breathed new life into a derelict, abandoned shack in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to create a house that is not only eminently habitable but architecturally interesting too.

Mountain Shack Makeover

Photo: Chad Everhart

“Brutal” is the word architect Chad Everhart uses to describe his first encounter with a home he now calls the Mountain Re-Shack.

“There was a seven-foot-long black snake sitting on the front porch,” says Everhart, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “Nobody had lived in it for decades—the windows were blown out, and there were animals in it. But it was solid—you could jump on the floor OK.”

Most would call that a fairly low threshold for a renovation project. In fact, most would simply have called in the sledgehammers and the wrecking ball, and simply taken it down. But not Everhart. “I thought I could patch this thing up,” he says. “I thought it was fixable.”

Original Mountain Shack

The original mountain shack. Photo: Chad Everhart

It was a Depression-era home sited in a 10-acre cow pasture 25 minutes west of Boone in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was most likely built for a farmhand working on larger fields down the road. There were no studs in the walls, just hemlock boards barely hanging on. A galvanized tin roof struggled vainly to keep the structure dry. Inside, vandals had had their way.

“Everybody I talked to said, ‘Tear it down! Put it in the dump!’ ” he says. “But it would have cost a substantial amount of money to throw it away.”

Besides, he was enamored of its highly unusual fieldstone foundation and chimney. It was a cast-in-place affair, shaped by someone who first created wooden forms, then just tossed in rocks and poured concrete on top. Clearly absent were the craftsmanship and clean grout lines that any self-respecting mason would have insisted upon.

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“A bunch of farmers probably got together and made this thing—pretty fast and not too fussy,” he says. “There’s no cut stone at all—it’s more like: ‘Here’s a pile of rocks, now let’s see what we can make of it.’ ”

Everhart’s client had initially hired him to build a new house on the site but then shifted gears: Why not do the little house first, live in it for a while and get used to the property? He wanted to see what it would take to make the derelict, abandoned shack livable for a time.

The architect thought about it and offered two approaches. He could fix it up like a little cottage and make it dark and rustic. Or he could celebrate its abandonment with a ghost-like frame that would give it an ephemeral kind of commentary. His client was intrigued.

“Should we patch it up or go absolutely crazy?” Everhart asked him.

The client answered with his own question: “Can we do both?”

They met in the middle and wound up redesigning the house so that it’s not only eminently habitable but architecturally interesting too. It maintains its old ruinous roots with its stone foundation and chimney, but now it wears a new skin—a hemlock-banded rainscreen, painted bright white.

“The client wanted to contrast the old and the new,” Everhart says. “It was kind of like: What could have been there, what should have been there, and what’s there now?”

The architect found a local contractor who’d been a carpenter for 40 years and got to work on reconfiguring most of the interior. “It was 1,000 square feet when we found it, and then we whittled it down to 850,” he says. “It was real chopped up and didn’t make a lot of sense—you had to walk through one room to get to another.”

They replaced the old roof with a new one and added gutters, then moved on to the interior, replacing a few joists to level the floors. “We didn’t want the client to walk on an undulating floor, so we squared it up to make it safe to occupy,” he says.

Mountain Re-Shack Chad Everhart

Living room before and after. Photo: Chad Everhart

They converted two tiny bedrooms on the second floor into one loft that now overlooks the living room below. In that living room, a propane stove, vented through the chimney, heats the entire home; a kitchen/dining area with full bath and laundry area are adjacent. The hemlock rainscreen is repeated inside, painted bright white in contrast to the gray-painted drywall and exposed ceiling joists.

Now it’s a home with its own narrative to tell, rather than a tear-down or a simple restoration. “It’s a story of how the past and the present merge together to show how something abandoned was reclaimed, reworked, reclad and reinhabited,” the architect says.

Everhart looks to both client and site for design inspiration, noting that this is not the house he would have designed for another client—and that for anyone else he probably would have torn it down. But this client is an interior designer who has worked with a number of architects on other projects and was itching to work with one for his own home. Moreover, he represents a new kind of resident for the rural mountains of North Carolina.

“He’s a typical client moving into this region, saying, ‘I want a farm, but a fresh overlay to what that means,’ ” Everhart says.

And then there’s the site itself. “It’s in an old farming community, and we responded to that with local materials and a local guy to build it—and we maintained the original form.”

They did so economically too. Even with its new well and septic system, the Mountain Re-Shack came in just under what new construction might have cost.

“We probably did it for about $150 a square foot,” Everhart says.

And there’s nothing brutal about that.

 

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com


Award-Winning Architect Shares 9 Renovation Tips

Architect Ann Sellars Lathrop distills what wisdom went into her firm's award-winning renovation of a 1950s Cape-style home in Connecticut.

Renovation Tips - Old Hill House

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop

Architect Ann Sellars Lathrop made the most of every inch in the Old Hill House, a Westport, Connecticut, family residence that Sellars Lathrop Architects renovated in 2012. (Don’t miss the full story HERE.) For Lathrop, the project brought an award and high praise, but like all the work her firm undertakes, it was also a valuable learning experience. In the wake of transforming a 1950s Cape into a practical, modern dwelling with historic-home flair, Lathrop offers these words of wisdom to anyone planning a large-scale remodel:

  • Eliminate walls to enhance the feeling of space. Our renovation gave the homeowners sight lines between the kitchen, family room, and dining room.
  • Raise the ceiling. In the Old Hill House kitchen, we removed the ceiling joists and exposed the roof rafters, adding skylights over the sink.
  • Add windows for natural light and a view to the outside, and to make rooms seem larger. A worthy goal is for every room to have windows on two walls.
  • Skylights: They’re really important! Abundant light completely changes the mood of a space, and you never have to turn on lights during the day.
Renovation Tiips - Family Room

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop

  • As you make other changes, avoid relocating bathrooms; the cost usually outweighs the benefit.
  • Maximize usable square footage not only to improve your quality of life at home, but also to boost resale value.
  • Build shelving into every nook and cranny, because there’s no such as frivolous storage space.
  • The simpler your roofline, the better your bottom line. Gables and other roof features of relative complexity carry a high price tag.
  • Insulation pays. This home’s Energy Star rating warranted a rebate from the utility company, and monthly heating costs have plummeted.
For more on Ann Sellars Lathrop, click here.

New Look (and Life) for a 1950s Cape

The remodeling challenge was typical: how to get more living space for a growing family. The transformation was anything but.

Cape House Remodel - After

Photo: Ann Sellers Lathrop / Olsen Photography

It’s a classic challenge in an older neighborhood: How can a growing family increase their living space without expanding their home’s footprint?

Architect Ann Sellars Lathrop answered that question by transforming a 1950s Cape Cod into a modern farmhouse informed by the bungalows of the 1920s.

Old Hill House- Before

The Old Hill House before.

“The client wanted it clean and modern, in a transitional style to fit the vernacular of the neighborhood,” she says. “This was a farming community in the late 1800s, so there are farmhouses, colonials and onion barns down the street. A lot of the homes have front porches.”

By creating a continuous shed dormer, she was able to turn former roofline into useful living space. “That gives you the floor area and the ceiling height on the second floor, and you get a peak that’s enough for an air handler up there,” she says. “It’s a trick to reduce costs and keep the scale down, so you don’t end up with a big, boxy look.”

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When she started, the client consisted of a young couple with one daughter. A potential job change coinciding with groundbreaking slowed things down a bit, and simplified their plans somewhat. By the time the renovation was complete two and a half years later, the family had grown by one child, with another on the way.

So the expansion was timely. Upstairs she added a master suite with walk-in closet and bath, and renovated two existing bedrooms and a bath for the children. “It gave them more space,” she says. “By taking the roof off and coming out to the edges of the first floor walls, we added 600 square feet.”

After Old Hill House Living Room

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop /Olsen Photography

The renovated home now totals 2,900 square feet.” She took one bay of a two-car garage, and gave it a new and useful set of functions. Where once there’d been no entry from garage to home, there’s one now, along with a new mudroom and powder room.  Lathrop also enhanced the street presence by designing a welcoming front porch.

Related:  10 Design Inspirations for Mudroom and Entryways

The only addition is in the rear of the house, where a poorly constructed and poorly insulated screened in porch was taken down to the foundation and rebuilt as an expansive  family room off the kitchen.  A higher pitch to the roof, and energy efficient windows and skylights make the space even more expansive, while  providing passive heat gain in winter.

The home was sheathed originally in tall wooden shingles. When the client suggested making the change to more of a Nantucket Maybeck look, the architect resisted. “I said ‘No – paint them,’” she says. “So we wove in some new ones and painted them an off-white color – a light, pewter gray.” It’s a monochromatic, oyster-colored tint that works well with the color palette of the region.

After Old Hill House Kitchen

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop / Olsen Photography

Inside, the home is awash in natural light from new windows and skylights, with an easy, open flow from kitchen to family room to dining room.

“It was a Cape Cod that was totally unusable for a young family—with a small scale and little rooms” she says “They wanted to keep the nature of that smaller scale. So now it’s tight and compact, but a very livable, warm space.”

It’s also a smart renovation with a stylish response to a classic question.

 

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Dwell. He also publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.