Effective Waterfront Cabin Design
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Building at the Water’s Edge

9 expert tips for effective waterfront cabin design.

By Dale Mulfinger 01-drawing The design of cabins found on oceansides, lakeshores and stream banks is both exhilarating and challenging and necessitates some thoughtful ideas. We enjoy the beauty in a broad vista, the charm of a sunrise or sunset and the serenity of wild fowl glide patterns. We dream of lapping waves, thundering sea-action or a gurgling stream. Some enjoy seeing a distant ore boat, a waterskier in the bay or a parade of canoeists gliding by. While these are amazing benefits of a waterside retreat, water can also imply dangers and precautions. Coastal storms can hit with fury, a lake’s water quality can deteriorate from nearby farming, and streams can overflow their banks, flooding vast areas. Shoreline embankments can be prone to erosion, and low-lying sites entail high water tables that can affect foundations and basements. 02 My cabin region of Minnesota and Wisconsin has over 25,000 lakes plus hundreds of shoreline miles along Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. After 25 years of designing cabins in this milieu, I’ve learned a few things along the way, so I’ll share them here. 1. What’s front and what’s back? If the cabin is on a lake with a dock, the lake side is referred to as the front, and the entry side opposite is the back. Since this can be confusing, I call them the lake side and entry side, not front and back. 2. Sites adjoining water are usually sloped. When a cabin is located an appropriate zoning distance away from the shore, it’s usually on a slope. This leads to a main level above ground and a walkout level below, built into the slope. Retreats on steep slopes might even require three levels to get from entry to ground. 3. A few zoning codes are designed to preserve vegetation along lakeshore slopes and, thus, require cabins to be located 30 feet or more back from the crest of the sloped hill. 07 4. Windows that view the water should emphasize the horizontal plane of the view. There is little need for windows to rise into the sky; rather, they should stretch along a lake-facing facade, even wrapping the corners of the cabin. Views to a river or stream can be particularly difficult if the water channel is in a deep gorge that isn’t wide. River sites are best when placed along a bend in the stream so views up or down the stream are possible. Most cabins on water sites are located with a broad side parallel to the shore. By turning the cabin at an angle to the shore, two of the home’s faces can see the water, one provides a big lake view and the other the action on the shoreline. Drawing an accurate cross section through the site and a proposed cabin can help determine better solutions for views. 03-water-view_ 5. Decks and screen porches are commonly placed on the water side of cabins, thereby blocking views from living and dining rooms. This can be avoided by moving the porch to the side and placing the deck only in front of the dining area. I choose this concept because we sit higher in dining chairs versus living room sofas. Reducing the length of the deck in front of the cabin can also help with allowing more light into walkout lower levels. 6. Some zoning codes will allow boathouses, gazebos and saunas to be built near the water’s edge. On my lake, a boathouse has to be 10 feet back from the water and may not be more than 20 feet wide along the shore and 26 feet deep. The roof ridge cannot exceed 13 feet from lakeside grade. That’s big enough for two boats pulled up on rail systems and a little storage in the rafters. 09 7. Lake water tempers the environment, creating a ballast against temperature swings on a summer day. Design your cabin with stack-action air flow by employing windows low on the lake side and high on the entry side. With the aid of a few ceiling fans and a cool lake swim, you’ll be able to hear the evening call of the loons rather than the whir of an air conditioner. 8. The water in your lake or stream is a major asset to your property. Join with neighbors to protect your cabin area’s watershed. Refrain from mowing your lawn to the shoreline and from fertilizer use. Consider a natural buffer along the water’s edge, which will slow runoff, reduce erosion and filter nutrients, such as phosphorus that can cause algae growth. Retain trees on the water side of your property so boaters view nature rather than a wall of cabins. 10 9. Oceanside retreats: My knowledge of designing for property on the ocean is limited to only a couple of coastal projects in Nova Scotia and the Florida panhandle. Hurricane forces and a rising sea level impact the designs in many coastal areas, which has led to building cottages high on stilts. Salt corrosion requires use of galvanized or stainless steel for metal elements. Also, note that warm balmy climates necessitate termite protection and sun shading. Your cabin on the water’s edge is likely to give your family countless days of pleasure and relaxation. Thoughtful planning of your site and cabin will provide lasting value.

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