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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.