Breathtaking cabins in sensational locations

A raft of original and evocative takes on an age-old structure squeeze big, bold ideas into modest dimensions, says Dominic Bradbury

A quartet of cabins, designed by Snorre Stinessen, perch upon old stone quays on the Norwegian island of Manshausen
A quartet of cabins, designed by Snorre Stinessen, perch upon old stone quays on the Norwegian island of Manshausen | Image: Steve King

The idea of the cabin far away from everyday life holds a special place in many people’s hearts. There is a powerful allure to the notion of disappearing into nature and reconnecting with the landscape and its own rhythms. This escapist urge was described by writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau when he decided to hide himself away in a small, simple cabin by Walden Pond back in the 1840s. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” he wrote in Walden, his lyrical hymn to natural living.

Red Bridge House, by Piers Smerin of Smerin Architects, is set amid 22 acres of woodland in East Sussex
Red Bridge House, by Piers Smerin of Smerin Architects, is set amid 22 acres of woodland in East Sussex | Image: Tim Crocker

The contemporary cabin may be more sophisticated than the one to which Thoreau retreated, but it still touches the earth lightly and has an essential modesty. Though restrained in scale and budget, the modern cabin also offers enticing opportunities to play with form and context. For architects and their clients, it represents a chance to build something original and evocative.

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Scandinavian architects have long experience of bringing a true sense of delight to an old and familiar typology. On the northern Norwegian island of Manshausen, polar explorer Børge Ousland commissioned architect Snorre Stinessen to design a striking quartet of cabins as guest accommodation for his “getting away from it all” resort, which opened two years ago. Here the beauty of the coastal setting is everything, and Stinessen’s response was a series of glass-fronted, larch-clad cabins perched upon old stone quays – the only remnant of a fishermen’s warehouse that once stood on the site. The cabins cantilever out over the water, with the big windows framing panoramic views of the waterways, and offer the lightest physical touch on an extraordinary place.

Red Bridge House’s pool room opens out onto the terrace
Red Bridge House’s pool room opens out onto the terrace | Image: Tim Crocker

“Strictly speaking, there would have been room for more cabins on the quay, but we chose to give priority to the individual qualities of each cabin and emphasise privacy and the individual views from each one,” says Stinessen, who has worked on a number of cabin projects. “The idea of the cantilever enhances the contrast between light and heavy, new and old, but also gives you this feeling of floating above the sea.”

Architect Ian MacDonald created his own green-roofed home on Ontario’s Georgian Bay
Architect Ian MacDonald created his own green-roofed home on Ontario’s Georgian Bay | Image: Tom Arban

For Ousland, the idea of a sequence of individual cabins was far more enticing than the notion of a single large hotel. He compares the cabins to boats, connected to the open vistas of the water. “A larger structure wouldn’t do justice to a place such as Manshausen,” says Ousland. “It’s much better to have private space where you can retreat with your own thoughts and experiences. But really it’s the natural surroundings that play the main role. There are very few places on earth where you can find such a pristine environment.”

Cliff House by Daniel Bär of Dualchas Architects, on the Isle of Skye
Cliff House by Daniel Bär of Dualchas Architects, on the Isle of Skye | Image: Andrew Lee

The organic character of the modern cabin lends itself to a range of landscapes. In England, architect Piers Smerin of Smerin Architects was partly inspired by the model of barns and agricultural sheds when he was commissioned to design a new home among 22 acres of woodland in East Sussex. The woodland setting led Smerin towards a natural palette of materials, although the form of the house – plus a complementary timber building nearby known as the Wood House, which holds a garage, workshop and guest accommodation – is unmistakably modern. Despite being a substantial home, the use of timber cladding (a pre-dried softwood known as ThermoWood), combined with the careful positioning of the building in a gently sloping clearing, gives Red Bridge House a pleasing subtlety in keeping with the ancient forest context.

The living room at Cliff House looks over Loch Dunvegan
The living room at Cliff House looks over Loch Dunvegan | Image: Andrew Lee

“The house fits well in the landscape, while still being distinctly a product of its time,” says Smerin. “It has substance and a rich materiality without the preciousness that often accompanies modern design, though in reality achieving that apparent casual simplicity takes as much work as anything more overtly designed.”

ArchitectureFirm’s Katie and Danny MacNelly designed their own retreat beside the James River in Virginia
ArchitectureFirm’s Katie and Danny MacNelly designed their own retreat beside the James River in Virginia | Image: James Ewing

A rather different set of vernacular references informed the design of The Sett on the Isle of Wight, which sits within a former orchard that once formed part of the gardens of a larger house nearby. There are points of inspiration here from Scandinavia and from Austria (one of the owners is Austrian), but architect Alun Jones of Dow Jones Architects was particularly interested in the local old fishermen’s huts, made with timber stained black; the larch cladding of this highly organic house is treated in a similar way.

Katie and Danny MacNelly's home is divided between three cabins
Katie and Danny MacNelly's home is divided between three cabins | Image: James Ewing

“We wanted that close correspondence with the tarred shacks and old fishing boats that you see around the island,” says Jones. “We all agreed very quickly that a timber building was appropriate for a house in an orchard, and it had to be small due to the planning constraints and other parameters of the site. But we also wanted to make a home with a strong sense of character.”

Poised over a precipice, Cliff House in Nova Scotia, by Brian MacKay-Lyons, acts as a perfect lookout point across the sea
Poised over a precipice, Cliff House in Nova Scotia, by Brian MacKay-Lyons, acts as a perfect lookout point across the sea | Image: Greg Richardson

Another characterful home with a cabin-like quality, loaded with connotations of the past, is Cliff House on the north-western edge of the isle of Skye in Scotland – a modest, linear, low-slung home overlooking Loch Dunvegan and made of a combination of Caithness stone and larch cladding. Tucked into the landscape, the house – designed by Daniel Bär of Dualchas Architects – has the modest scale and organic character of the cabin spliced with vernacular references.

Cliff House in Nova Scotia
Cliff House in Nova Scotia | Image: Greg Richardson

“For me, cabins relate to shielings or huts – the Gaelic word is àirigh,” says Dualchas co-founder Neil Stephen. “They are suggestive of buildings that people design and build for themselves, and a huge variety of forms have emerged that reflect the character of the creator. That’s why architects are drawn to them. They may be modest, but they express a freedom of creativity that you could also associate with the naïve innocence of a child’s drawing.”

Stacked Cabin in Wisconsin, by Johnsen Schmaling Architects, features a viewing tower
Stacked Cabin in Wisconsin, by Johnsen Schmaling Architects, features a viewing tower | Image: John J Macaulay

Environmentally sensitive locations create a responsibility on the part of architects and owners to design buildings that are both sustainable and respectful of the landscape. This was very much the case for Canadian architect Ian MacDonald, who created an isolated new home for himself, his wife Diane and their two sons on a rocky island among the archipelago of Ontario’s Georgian Bay. As there was no road access (it’s a 28km journey by boat), MacDonald had to bring in all of the building materials – including the Douglas fir for the structure and the cedar shingle cladding – by barge. The house is discreetly positioned on a granite outcrop among the pines and juniper bushes; a planted green roof helps reduce the impact even further. “There was a rundown cabin on pretty much the same site, which has the best of the views,” says MacDonald, whose practice is based in Toronto. “We really enjoy the force of nature and the weather, which tends to be extreme.”

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In Buckingham County, Virginia, architects Katie and Danny MacNelly of ArchitectureFirm also created a retreat in a sensitive rural spot, to be shared with their three young sons, as well as visiting family and friends. The 40-acre site is alongside the James River, with a combination of woodland and water frontage, and they chose a sympathetic design that divided their home into three separate single-storey cabins, with the central structure holding the main living spaces and the other two hosting bedrooms and bathrooms for family and guests. A sheltered deck between the cabins, clad in black treated cedar, holds an outdoor “living room” complete with a fireplace.

“We liked the idea of dividing up the home for several reasons, some of them practical and some of them conceptual,” says Danny. “The greatest advantage was the reduction of the scale of the house, giving it a very light footprint in the woods and having an informal arrangement that feels natural. We love the way that the house opens up and almost feels like a camping experience, but with all the creature comforts. We built it to give us a chance to live in this wonderful landscape and we really do find that we are spending most of our time outdoors when we are here, no matter the season.”

Johnsen Schmaling Architects has also explored a series of creative variations on the modern cabin in Wisconsin, including its Stacked Cabin for attorney Amanda Hollis and technology venture capital consultant-turned-stay-at-home father Jeremy Hollis, plus their two boys. Sitting in a small clearing by a former forest logging road, the Stacked Cabin has been tucked into a gentle slope and stretched vertically to reduce the footprint of the new building and preserve the wooded landscape as far as possible. The uppermost element of the cabin forms a timber-clad viewing tower holding a study that doubles as a forest observatory, reading room, den and occasional guest quarters.

“The cabin gives this amazing vantage point to appreciate the beauty of the landscape,” says Jeremy, whose family use it as a retreat from their urban life in Chicago, around four hours’ drive away. “We can have views of thick forest on one side and an amazing sunset on the other. But we also like how well the house blends into the surroundings – the ridges, trees and rock outcrops are all very vertical, so the Stacked Cabin fits in well.”

“Cabins are so interesting to us because they distil residential needs down to the bare essentials – a place to congregate and a place to sleep,” adds architect Sebastian Schmaling, whose other projects include the Linear Cabin, also in Wisconsin. “A cabin is the antithesis of a ‘McMansion’ and its careless use of space. It’s efficient and deliberately humble and requires extraordinary precision in its execution. It’s this challenge that makes the architecture of cabins so intriguing.”

In Canada, architect Brian MacKay-Lyons of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects has created an extreme cabin, known as the Cliff House, balanced upon the coastline of Nova Scotia. Built to a modest budget for private clients, the cedar-clad cabin of spruce, pine and fir is anchored to the site like a lookout station and is yet another imaginative response to the notion of a cabin for contemporary living, confirming its ongoing vitality and relevance. “It is monumentally modest,” says MacKay-Lyons. “The understated landward side of the cabin is calm and grounded, while the seaward side flies dramatically off the face of the cliff.”

“A small, one-room cabin like this is analogous to a poem or short story rather than a novel and can be about a singular architectural idea. Many of our small cabin projects explore the landscape, almost like land art, and allow the owner to dwell in the landscape without consuming it. There is a utopian dimension to it – Alvar Aalto said that all architecture is a search for paradise on earth. Now, more than ever, in our virtual, digital society there is this yearning to reconnect with the physical environment.”

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