Photos by Jim Kruger, LandMark Photography
For nearly a decade, the Walsh family and their two dogs traveled to the North Shore for vacations. Over time, however, finding accommodations that welcomed their large fur babies (a Samoyed and a Newfoundland) became increasingly difficult. “We love the North Shore and the woods, but felt ourselves getting pinched out of going up,” says Daniel Walsh, so the family began looking for a property on which they could build their own dog-friendly cabin.
Next to Caribou Lake, which they’d enjoyed kayaking in the past, they found a site. They knew they wanted modern architecture—at an affordable price point. They also wanted a super low-maintenance cabin, in part because of the dogs (i.e. the walls and floors had to be durable and easy to clean). But also, Walsh says, because they live in Minneapolis, “and we can’t be at the cabin every weekend.”
To architect Sara Imhoff, owner and principal of Imprint Architecture and Design, LLC, the Walshes’ criteria meant building small with high-quality, long-lasting materials. In other words, building sustainably. “Just think,” Imhoff explains, “if you’re using a locally sourced product that you don’t have to refinish every five years, then you’re not always sanding it down and losing a layer of its life, and not purchasing more paint or other finish made in a factory.”
“When you’re choosing materials that are serving their purpose and have a long lifespan, the amount of energy needed for upkeep is minimized,” she adds. Also driving sustainability and affordability? “The Walshes wanted a compact space in which every square inch is purposefully designed to be used,” she explains.
But first, the site: The 3-acre parcel, on which a small cabin was once perched on railroad ties, was a major challenge. A half-acre along the lakeshore and a county road bifurcating the property came with set-back requirements. The site also had an elevation change of 30 feet. Moreover, most of the property was solid rock. “The property was unbuildable,” Walsh says.
Nonetheless, they acquired a variance for new structure within the former cabin’s footprint. “We were fine with that,” Walsh says. “A smaller footprint meant we used fewer materials and resources, which made the cabin more affordable.” Next, they sited the cabin.
“Sara and I spent a whole day at the property figuring out how to minimize impact on the trees, and how to position the building for maximum sun and views,” says Walsh.
Today the two-level, 900-square-foot cabin rests comfortably in the woods. From the cabin, the family enjoys views of the lake through large Marvin windows framed with sustainably sourced pine and aluminum. “The windows were a big thing,” Walsh says. “Because the cabin is small, we wanted to bring in a lot of natural light from every angle, so we feel like we’re living outdoors. We also wanted to feel warmth in the winter from the bright winter sun.”
Two operable windows on the main level along with the screen porch, and operable windows upstairs, let the family invite in cool breezes off the lake in the summer. The cabin is clad in metal siding from Metal Sales, a northern Minnesota company that uses recycled metal and Energy Star coatings that reduce solar heat loads.
Cedar finished with a water-based stain covers the entryway on the cabin’s north side, adding a rustic aesthetic to the modern structure. “Sara came up with the perfect combination of cedar on the lower box, which we can maintain ourselves, and cladding the rest of the cabin in a recycled steel that wears well and is low maintenance,” Walsh says.
Inside, the fir support beams were left exposed. “We didn’t use more wood to cover up the beams,” Imhoff says. “They’re serving their purpose, structurally and aesthetically. As a result, the amount of energy required for maintenance and upkeep is minimized.” Radiant heat emanates from the polished concrete floors finished with a water-based sealer. The plywood walls are also covered with a water-based sealer or low-VOC Greenguard paint.
“By using common materials like plywood and concrete, we can enjoy clean, simple living,” Walsh says. “The concrete can handle the dogs’ claws and weight, and dirt. We just use water and soap with a little pH to clean the floors.”
A wood-burning stove provides ambience and another source of heat throughout the cabin, which includes a kitchen, living area, two bedrooms, a flex space, 1.5 bathrooms, a laundry/mud room, a mechanical room, and storage. On the lower level, an inside door can be closed to maximize or minimize heating zones. Electric baseboard heat upstairs keeps the bedrooms toasty.
The cabin’s other sustainable features include LED lighting, an air-to-air exchanger for fresh indoor air, an energy-efficient electric water heater, and dual-flush toilets. The upstairs floors are covered in Eco-fi PET carpet tiles made of 100-percent-purified plastic bottles. If a tile is damaged, it can be easily pulled out and replaced.
The Walsh family and their dogs moved into the new cabin on July 4, last summer, and have been enjoying their new spot for relaxation and repose. “We love the lake,” says Walsh. “We can’t see any of the other cabins from our place or while on the lake, and that’s part of the culture up here: being nestled into the woods with nothing unnecessary. We absolutely love it.”