How to Transform Your 3-Season Cabin for Year-Round Fun
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How to Transform Your 3-Season Cabin for Year-Round Fun

Written by Janice Brewster
If you love using your cabin in the spring, summer and fall but wish you could cozy up there in the winter, too, there are steps you can take to convert your seasonal cabin into a place you can enjoy in comfort all year long. To be sure, it is no small feat to turn a summer escape into a winter retreat, but with careful planning, you can create a solid plan for four-season success.
 

Baby it’s Cold Outside

When a cabin is described as “three season,” it generally means it is not livable in the winter. Seasonal cottages or cabins might lack central heating or a water source that’s protected from freezing. Insulation in the walls or roof may not be up to code or be non-existent. A summer cabin could have been built on an open foundation, piers or an uninsulated concrete slab.
 
Even if you could heat the place enough to enjoy it during winter weekends, you might have to drain all the water lines every time you leave.
 
If you think that being a year-round structure would increase your retreat’s value, look into how your local municipality classifies residences. A cabin could still be considered seasonal unless it has an approved wastewater (septic) system, a supply of drinkable water and access for fire safety. It could also need to meet other zoning or setback requirements. 
 

The Big Upgrade  

If you’re ready to convert a seasonal cabin, you can start by addressing the issue of running water. To keep lines from freezing and flooding, you’ll need to protect them from the cold. “You would be required to insulate and provide minimal heat to the cabin over the course of the winter to avoid freezing up the lines,” says Tony Stoll, an architect with BHH Partners in Perham, Minnesota. If your existing cabin has plumbing in the exterior walls, that plumbing would probably need to be moved. “We typically try to avoid constructing cabins with plumbing lines located within the exterior walls, which are more difficult to keep from freezing,” Tony says.
 
If your cabin was built over a crawl space or concrete slab, conversion will need to address the foundation. “With an existing concrete slab, the only real way to help with insulation is to dig down around the perimeter of the cabin and add rigid insulation to help eliminate thermal bridging [gaps],” says Tony. If you have an existing crawlspace, you might be able to insulate under the cabin’s floors or add insulation to the side walls of the crawlspace. This might allow the option of conditioning the crawlspace and provide a way to keep water lines warm.
 
Run pipes below the frost line, advises Mark Gordon of Rangeley Building & Remodeling in Rangeley, Maine. “It’s a good idea not to run snowmobiles on or pack down any septic locations,” he says. “The frost will be driven lower in the ground with traffic.”
 
With most seasonal cabins, insulation (or lack thereof) is a great concern. You can ask a professional to check for insulation in your cabin’s attic and walls. “Many times, cabins are built with 2-by-4 construction, and you can only get so much insulation in those walls,” explains Brent Gunsbury of Bercher Design & Construction in Baxter, Minnesota. Conventional construction methods for year-round homes use 2-by-6 framing to allow for more insulation and to meet R-values. So, converting a cabin could involve addressing smaller wall studs.
 
When remodeling, Mark Gordon’s Maine-based company usually uses a combination of rigid foam on the exterior and fiberglass in the wall cavity to meet local R-value codes.
 
You should also look for gaps around openings like doors and windows and add weather-stripping. Thermal-backed draperies or window quilts can help block drafts. For most cabins, replacing single-pane windows with insulated units is a worthwhile investment, says Matt Balmer of Land’s End Development in Crosslake, Minnesota.
 
Seasonal cabins often have fireplaces or wood-stoves and no other sources of heat. While heating with wood is possible in the winter, it’s labor-intensive and only works when someone is in the cabin to feed the fire. A few common options for year-round heat systems that don’t require running ducts throughout the house are propane wall furnaces, electric heaters or baseboard units or pellet stoves. “Usually propane decorative stoves or Rinnai propane heaters work well,” Mark says. “They’re inexpensive to install and are low maintenance.”
 
Your cabin’s access to utilities can affect the type of heating system you choose. Is electricity available? Is it reliable enough to prevent pipes from freezing? If you choose propane heat, can your site be accessed in the winter to re-fill a propane tank? Pellet stoves can operate on a thermostat but need consistent electrical service to do so.
 
No matter how you heat the cabin, you’re smart to install a web-enabled thermostat that allows you to warm the place up before you arrive for the weekend and alerts you if the temperature inside dips too low. “You can also do this through a security system that will send you an alert,” says Matt Balmer. If you live far away from your cabin, allow a local contractor, property manager or HVAC company to have access to your cabin in case of emergency.
 

Other Issues

Before you start converting your cabin, be sure you can actually get there in the winter. Is the road to the cabin plowed regularly? If you have a site that is very narrow, what would you do with snow plowed out of your driveway?
 
And, once you address access, consider how your time spent there will be different than in other seasons. Is the area around your cabin a summer community that might lack amenities, like restaurants, cultural events or neighborhood gatherings in the off-season? A winter weekend spent at a hotel near your cabin could help you decide the best course of action.

 

Should it Stay or Should it Go?

When is it better to just take a seasonal cabin down and start over? “That’s a delicate conversation we tend to have with clients,” says Brent Gunsbury of Bercher Design & Construction in Baxter, Minnesota. “It becomes a bigger life discussion.” He asks clients to look into the future, if possible, to really consider what kind of cabin will best suit their needs for the long term.
 
“The problem with some older cabins is the fact that once you start trying to remodel or add on to them, it can start a domino effect with repairs and updates,” adds Tony Stoll, an architect with BHH Partners. “Sometimes existing portions of a cabin limit the options that the owner might have for remodeling.
 
“Each situation is unique and really dependent on several factors, such as budget, proposed updates and the condition of the existing cabin,” Tony says. Will retrofitting systems and adding insulation be effective in making a cabin livable? Brent questions the wisdom of investing in a cabin that might have to be stripped down to the studs and have a replacement concrete slab poured.
  
Local regulations may help determine your next move.
 
Remodeling an existing structure can allow you to maintain a prime location at the edge of the water, such as a lake; whereas local restrictions would require a new building to be set much farther back.
 
 

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