Dream on

I design dreams, so it should come as no surprise that I have a few of my own. I’m speaking, of course, about homes. From Southwest remodels to mountain ski retreats, I’ve worked with families and friends to create personal oases for busy lives.

For my own dream, I’ve created three cabin schemes for a future getaway on family land near Itasca State Park. Money, indecision and family disagreement have all conspired to keep my cabin a dream, but as long as it remains so the underlying ideas inspire much of my work and offer a laundry list of considerations for efficient building practices.

A few weeks ago I helped staff a Lynnhurst Neighborhood home on the Minneapolis and St. Paul Home Tour. The annual event is all about dreams, those that have been executed, and those that animate the minds of curious tour goers. Of the homes I toured, one couple created an addition to make their home accessible into their retirement, and another younger couple renovated to ensure a lifetime of durability and increased efficiency.

As an architect who has worked with many, I can tell you the dreams of homeowners vary widely, but the considerations and responsibility for achieving those dreams can be simplified by a well considered process.

For my partner Scott and I, our dream is of a retreat. We imagine a place in the woods that the dogs can run, where we can spend all day cooking slow meals, and enjoying the company of our guests, over a crackling fire and bottles of wine. This dream is not without its complications, however. The physical location of this dream exists four hours away, and as an architect concerned with the impact my work has on the environment, the regular travel required to visit it is already a big concession. This has led me to consider methods and materials to offset the energy embodied in travel with increased performance and efficiency of the structure.

Challenge yourself to build only what you need. The program remains the same in each concept: to accommodate two to eight guests for extended weekends year round in 1,000 square feet or less of conditioned space. Unconditioned decks and a screened porch expand the living space and spill into the landscape in warm months, while a wood stove, radiant heat and warm materials envelop visitors like a sweater in the cold ones.

Incorporate construction efficiencies. All three schemes involve some element of phasing and prefabrication. Each includes an elongated box containing sleeping pods and plumbing runs atop a small footprint of basement storage and mechanical space — encouraging my mother will visit with the added benefit of a secure tornado shelter. This box could be constructed off site and deposited on its foundation in a matter of hours versus weeks, allowing the structure to remain dry and precise.

Build for the site. Growing out from the prefabricated core, as time and money allow, is the communal gathering space. In an effort to keep our dream flexible, this expansion can exist as a heated slab on grade, conditioned crawl space or fully insulated structure hovering above the forest floor. The final solution will await a decision to accommodate the actual site.

Capture free energy. Everyone dreams of expansive windows, but where they are placed relative to the orientation of a house is critical. In our dream, the prefabricated sleeping box is always on the north side of the structure where its relatively small windows and heavily insulated wall will protect it from the cold and benefit the entire structure. The gathering spaces exist on the south side to take advantage of the sun. Our upturned roof reaches out to the sun on grey and cold days and a 6-foot overhang shades the glass in the height of summer. In our case, the west side faces the lake. Hot and notoriously difficult to control, the western setting sun is buffered by deep recesses and the screened porch.

Employ practicality before technology. In my sketches and models solar panels dot the roofline, but far from science fiction, they remain expensive and may be forced to remain a secondary system. One of my colleagues is fond of saying “insulate before you insolate.” Get it? These concepts I’ve created include structurally insulated panel roofs (SIPS) and two inches of rigid insulation continuously covering the exterior insulated walls.  A surprising amount of any wall (nearly 25% on average) is made up of wood framing. This wall assembly technique reduces thermal bridging by placing a highly efficient sheet of insulation between the framing and the exterior siding, allowing more of the heat generated within your home to remain there longer.

Be smart with materials. I see an endless stream of emerging products from year to year, but in our dream, find myself returning to the tried, true and ideally, local. We imagine a metal shell cladding the exterior, like bark, for it’s durability and low maintenance. Protected by this outer skin and deep recesses we will use wood — likely Tamarack, a wood native to northern Minnesota and similar to Cedar in its ability to resist rot and decay — to soften the exterior where we and our guests are closest to it.

Our cabin in the woods is a dream for the time being, but the concepts described above are not limited to it. In reality, these concepts could be incorporated by many of the dreamers on the Home Tour into their own special projects. Additionally, they all represent concepts benefiting certification in “green” construction programs such as Minnesota GreenStar and LEED for Homes. There is no reason why any of our dreams should be in conflict with our responsibility to be good stewards of our environment.    

Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects.