The general housing market has undergone a significant change in the past few years, not only on the lending side but the design of the average home as well.
The median and average square footage of a U.S home experienced a small decrease for the first time in decades in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and a recent survey by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) noted that requests for specialty rooms such as home theaters and exercise rooms — which were popular during the housing boom — are few and far between. Instead, the survey adds, homeowners are turning their attention toward the quality of their home through increased sustainability and accessibility.
As classic as its appeal may be, even something as timeless as a cabin can be subjected to growing trends, especially in terms of products used, with similar interests in quality, design flexibility and energy efficiency. For example, despite an initial dip in 2009, average home sizes have been gradually increasing as the market has improved, and so have cabins. In his 2001 book The Cabin, author, architect and cabinologist Dale Mulfinger originally reported “anything over 1,200 square feet is more like a cottage, lake home or lodge than a cabin.” However, in preparing materials for the book’s sequel, Back to the Cabin — scheduled for release this fall — Mulfinger has expanded his scope.
“We do a fair number of cabins that are three bedrooms, two baths and a loft, and when they’re done, they’re about 1,700 to 1,750 square feet,” he details. “That can still come off feeling pretty cabin-like. As long as you don’t have a master suite or an attached garage — those are telltale signs you’re creating a house, not a cabin.”
Size isn’t the only thing that’s changing with cabins, though. We chat with Mulfinger and other building and design professionals to learn what cabin owners are requesting and what new trends they see emerging over the coming year.
Energy efficiency. Cabins tend to be a natural complement for energy-efficient construction and power sources not only because of their rural location, which sometimes necessitates alternative energy systems, but their diminutive size as well. “With a smaller footprint, it’s easier to achieve energy efficiency because there is less space to heat and cool,” notes Celeste Raygosa, design manager for M.T.N Architects.
Some companies are taking the green concept a step further with not only their designs but their building envelopes as well. For example, M.T.N Architects, in partnership with its sister company, PrecisionCraft Log & Timber Homes, has updated its Rustic Luxury Log Cabins collection to include structural insulated panels (SIPs) in place of full log or timber walls to provide an energy-efficient envelope at a lower price point. The SIPs can still be accented with log, timber or stone to provide the same rustic appearance many cabin owners seek.
Also new to the market are Unity Homes. Created by Bensonwood in Walpole, New Hampshire, this line is designed to be net-zero capable, with an airtight building envelope. Non-toxic materials help increase air quality, as does air exchange technology. “There’s a misnomer out there about airtightness,” explains Bensonwood’s founder, Tedd Benson, namely that they breed stale air. “Airtight buildings can be better because you’re leaving less to chance. We know where it’s coming from, and we know where it’s going.”
Mulfinger also notes the popularity of energy-efficient products within cabin designs, from high-performance windows to heating systems. “There have been some fantastic improvements in fireplaces and woodstoves,” he observes. “There are lots of charming possibilities to heat up a cabin.” Mulfinger also touts the availability and local products such as wood and stone for both exterior and interior use, and recycled products, such as linoleum, as a sustainable building practice that many consumers are more readily seeking out in the creation of their cabins.
Emphasis on quality. When you construct buildings as quickly as some of the developments that were erected during the housing boom, the emphasis is less on construction and more on time (or lack thereof). “As a company, we’ve been convinced that the building industry is underserving the public,” explains Benson. “In the way that we go about the process of making buildings, there are certain aspects of the buildings that get rather compromised because the process is inefficient and hard to control.”
With defect levels at about 50 percent, including all cosmetic errors, the typical American home would not be an attractive purchase in other market areas, Benson explains. He concludes that the more the public is educated on the quality available from well-designed, well-constructed homes, the more it will demand that standard of quality in its home designs — in cabins as well as any other home.
Casual living. Cabins are made for relaxing, so it’s no surprise that their designs reflect a similar sensibility. “The trend overall is going toward more causal and comfortable designs,” notes Paul Schumacher of Schumacher Homes. “Formal is so long gone.” Formal living and dining room spaces were omitted from his company’s newest line, the Earnhardt collection, in favor of integrated living areas that use architectural elements such as cathedral ceilings and wood beams to open up these areas for more communal use.
The casual nature in which cabins are used helps support this design trend as well. For example, a cabin used as a secondary retreat likely won’t designate ownership of spaces such as the bedrooms, Mulfinger observes, because use will likely depend on who is staying there versus who owns it. For example, an older relative may prefer the main-level suite to an upper-level bedroom and opt to sleep there instead of the actual owners.
“We typically give all of our bedrooms names — such as the ‘Maple Leaf Bedroom’ — and that seems to help people acknowledge that they won’t always use the same one,” he states.
Outdoor connection. One of the biggest reasons people chose to build cabins is to connect with nature, so an emphasis on spaces that help marry the cabin’s interior with its surroundings is only, well, natural.
“Outdoor living spaces are really important,” Schumacher observes, noting that they enhance the casual, everyday lifestyle to which people are continually being drawn. “There is a lot of emphasis on screened and covered porches, and integrating indoor and outdoor spaces.” That connection can be as simple as a sight line to the outdoors or as complex as a NanoWall system, which Raygosa notes is a popular feature right now, to immediately create an outdoor environment.
Ample windows also help provide an outdoor connection and usher in plenty of natural light — a great health boost for the people residing in the cabin, Benson notes.
Design flexibility. Part of the draw of a cabin is the ability to personalize it; its charm provides a unique backdrop for creating a retreat that is distinctly you. This applies to interior and exterior design choices, both of which are continuing to expand in terms of customization capabilities and options available.
In addition to open concept floor plans to enhance the casual nature of their cabins, consumers are also looking toward how they will use the cabin later in life to make sure they will have access to everything in the future — or at least have the provisions in place to modify them. Schumacher acknowledges the growing foresight of multigenerational living, such as planning ahead for a parent moving in with them.
“Even if they don’t have that current situation, they’re planning for it,” he says. “That never used to be the case five or six years ago.”
Aging-in-place design follows a similar line of thought. Even if the owners don’t include specific Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant features in their designs, they’re at least incorporating larger 3-foot doorways, or a bedroom and bathroom on the main level to allow easier accessibility in the future.
Exterior styling modifications can be accomplished easily as well. Similar to the rustic accents for the Rustic Luxury Log Cabin line, different materials are offered to help blend these new cabins with their environments and the styling of its owners. From reclaimed log siding to wood shingles to cement board siding, your options are nearly limitless.
“You can make a cabin as rustic as you want,” Schumacher states, noting consumer interest in low-maintenance finishes.
Mulfinger has noted some creativity in the materials used, such as discarded shipping containers reconceived as a metal cabin. Although a departure from the wooded structures people normally associate with cabins, “cabins can be aggressively modern and still be called a cabin,” he states, noting that term reflects casualness of use, not the material used to construct it. “Contemporary structures are in greater favor with certain age groups than they were 20 years ago.”
The benefit of this increasing variety and customization: Whatever your style may be, there is going to be a product or design out there for you.