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Let It Snow | Snow Cabins

15 tips for building a cabin in snow country
by Charles Bevier
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Porches with deep overhangs help protect the exterior walls of this cabin from overexposure to harsh winter weather. Credit: Joseph Hilliard

There’s something to be said for the igloo. Made from blocks of snow, generally in the form of a dome, igloos are specially designed to keep heat in and cold out — and it works. While it may be as frigid as 50 degrees below zero outdoors, inside it’s downright comfortable, with temps reaching 61 degrees. This is because the snow acts as an insulator, and as the outer layer of ice melts and re-freezes, an airtight shell is formed.

Lucky for us, we have a few more resources to work with than the Eskimos, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. When the weather gets harsh, the most important thing is to have a strong structure around you. Here are 15 ideas to keep your home warm and wonderful when the weather outside is frightful.

  1. For eco-friendly heating and cooling, buy an energy-efficient heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system with a high Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rating. Units are sold with AFUE rating stickers on the side. The least efficient AFUE is 78; the most efficient is 98.6.
  2. When designing your great room, home office or home theater, consider how “snow glare” may impact TV and computer screens. To control it, specify windows with tinting you can adjust with a remote control.
  3. For the ultimate sloppy-weather abode, choose a design with a large mudroom for drying and storing wet winter gear. In addition to a garage, also consider a portico to keep you and your guests dry when unloading luggage, groceries or gifts outside the front door.
  4. Cold nights and a warm fire go together like butter and popcorn. But your choice of fireplace hearths will depend on which fuels are accessible in your area — and permitted by local building codes. There are eight basic fuels to choose from: wood, natural gas, propane, coal, oil, electricity, corn and wood pellets. (Gel fuels also are gaining popularity.) You can burn these fuels in fireplaces, stoves, masonry heaters or inserts. For dual-power sources, try a natural gas fireplace in the great room and a wood-burning stove in the basement recreation room.
  5. By simply orienting the long side of your cabin toward the south to create a passive solar cabin, you can reduce energy usage by 30 to 40 percent. With the right configuration, the sun’s lower position in the sky will enable its rays to penetrate deep within your home during the winter months, keeping it warm long after sunset.
  6. If you plan to entertain après ski, buffer your bedrooms from the common areas so some folks can rest after a long day of moguls and slaloms.
  7. Nighttime temperatures can turn your automobile’s oil into something that resembles wax. You can prevent this with an insulated and heated garage designed to house your cars, as well as toys such as snowmobiles and ATVs.
  8. Chemical de-icers are great for increasing safety on driveways and walkways. But because they are salt-based, they can mar the surface of concrete over time, not to mention the damage they can do to the environment. If you’re looking to provide traction — and protect your concrete at the same time — try spreading sand, kitty litter or even fireplace ashes to add traction.
  9. In the winter, indoor air humidity can drop as low as 5 percent, which can cause logs to check, damage wood furniture, and dehydrate your skin, lips and respiratory system. For relief, buy a whole-house humidifier, usually installed on a forced-air furnace. Ranging from $400 to $800, some units include an air purifier such as a HEPA filter or UV light.
  10. Because you might get snowed in, create a large pantry or basement root cellar for food storage. An extra refrigerator or freezer won’t hurt either.
  11. tile-floor-heat

    Ample windows for sunlight and tile flooring help to naturally heat this dining room. Credit: James Ray Spahn photo

  12. To create flexible outdoor living spaces — and minimize your home’s maintenance — consider covered porches, decks and balconies to protect you and your home’s exterior walls from the elements. Extended eaves or overhangs at least 4 feet deep also are recommended.
  13. The weakest link in any home’s thermal envelope is the windows. For better energy efficiency, invest in log cabin windows with a low U-value rating (around 0.33 or 0.34), which is worth the premium you’ll pay for it. Insulated window cladding also will dramatically improve performance.
  14. Regardless of the material you pick for your roof’s top layer, specify an ice-shield underlayment to protect your interior from leaks, even if it’s not required.
  15. Request tile floors in front of your home’s south-facing windows. They’ll absorb (and radiate) heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer. Another option: Install radiant in-floor heating in specific rooms (say, the master bath) or the whole house.
  16. Finally, when building in the high country, snow arrives early and stays late. This shorter construction season means you should select a builder who has a proven track record of completing cabins on tight deadlines.
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