Special Considerations When Designing a Lake Home

By Kelli Wegscheid, AIA Architect and Owner of Harmonious Architecture

We’ve all seen it — a new lake home that sticks out like a sore thumb as you drive along the lakeshore. A “city house” awkwardly squished in with the lake cabins.

We are accustomed to seeing the small, sometimes run-down (I mean well-loved) lake cabins that have been there forever. Cabins fully enjoyed by generations of families regardless of the peeling paint, cabin size or lack of sleeping accommodations, without air conditioning or attached garages. Yet families flock to these spaces like birds in migration. And, for very good reasons: space, nature, peace, family time, tranquility, trees, sunshine, water – all those feelings and qualities that elude a city house.

We can call upon timeless architectural design guide­lines that can make a new and improved lakefront cabin look as if it’s always been there.

First, consider your individual lake lot. Ev­ery lake lot is different, unlike city lots that are pretty much the same – flat and rect­angular. Lake lots have different views, elevations, regulations and surroundings . We start by checking each county’s lake classification as set by the DNR to deter­mine the lake setback, side yard setback and rear setback to determine where we are allowed to place a new building. The lake setback (how far from the lake the structure must be built) is either based on a set measurement by lake size, or what’s called a “string line test”. For example, if the given setback is 75′ from the lake, but all the neighboring houses are at 70′ from the lake, then your lot setback may also be 70′ from the lake as well. Each property is different. There are no guarantees. Work with a design professional or ask the county for clarification if you have questions about your lot’s requirements.

People have a tendency to push their home as close to the lake as the setback will allow, but remember – this is the most expensive and most used area of your property, so don’t sell yourself short on lakeside yard space. This is where fami­lies tend to gather, build a bonfire, play yard games and sit to watch the kids  in the lake.

Second, address the materials and sense of scale. We want the new structure to fit in with its surroundings. Most original cabins were a single story or a story and a half in volume. There may be some portions of an upstairs that are a full two stories, but if all the other cabins on the road are single story, you don’t want to  stand out as the towering giant. Keeping the height of the cabin down lends a sense of cozi­ness and charm that typically define lake homes. Building into the attic area of  a roof provides sloped ceilings and unique spaces that are not square boxes. Especially if you have a walk-out lot, the basement and main level views of the home together are going to appear large from the lake side already.

Siding materials like wood, shakes, low­ maintenance products that looks like wood, timbers and some amount of stone help “dress” your cabin for the occasion. We want your new lake home to be wearing sandals and swimsuits, not a suit and tie.

Third, capture those million dollar lake views. Arrange the design of the structure for maximum glass on the lake side. Typically, a great room, dining room and/or screen porch on the lake side allow all the guests to enjoy the lake view. Disre­gard any traditionally formal spaces like a formal dining room and instead utilize an open floor plan concept. An open floor plan also allows the rooms to  ebb and flow as needed in case a suddenly rainy day requires dinner seating for 12.


Fourth, go back to principals of original lake “cabin” designs: small bedrooms, minimal bathrooms and large gathering spaces that easily flow to the outside ar­eas. Not that a new home needs to be tiny, but remember the type of use a lake home has. A lake home typically caters to weekend guests – families that stay for one or two nights. So bedrooms that can accommodate a queen bed and a  set of twin bunk beds are ideal for maximizing sleeping space while keeping the overall square footage down. Closets can be kept small as weekend guests rarely take their belongings out of the suitcase. Bath­rooms that are divided into two portions: stool and shower/tub together separated by a pocket door from a double vanity allow multiple users at one time. A city home with a family of six getting ready each day for school and work needs bathroom and bedroom space much different from the laid back routines of weekend guests at the lake.

Major differences from earlier cabin de­sign would be a larger, more functional kitchen and the addition of an attached garage. Bonus  room space above a garage is perfect for overflow guest space, and a kitchen that allows for multiple users are sensible lake home features. In general, keeping sleeping and bath­ room space to a minimum allows more room for  larger family gathering spaces.

Lastly, and possibly the most important: respect tradition. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. In cabin design, often times the structure of the cabin IS broken. So, we must  fix that – the roof, the windows, the poor foundation, etc. But, if your family has always had a screen   porch here, and a deck there and that still works for your family, then great, let’s keep those elements. There is a reason families gather at lake homes year after year, and generation after generation. We aren’t here to reinvent the wheel, but instead to provide a new and improved version of the family lake home. The nostalgia of a family lake home is powerful.

Lake home memories are engrained and embedded deep into our soul. Let’s capture some of those memories and include them in the new design. Families have taken down old cedar wood from the original cabin walls and used them as accent walls in the new cabin. Original hand built cabinetry has been kept but relocated to the garage or bonus room wet bar. Cabin doors have been repur­posed as headboards or bookshelves. If it’s special and important to you – then it doesn’t need to be abandoned all to­gether. With a city home, your family may move and that is difficult, but accepted. Tearing down a generational family cabin is hard. Quite often owners unconsciously lead the new cabin design to reflect the layout of the original cabin, and that’s OK. We’ll upgrade to a new and improved version based on time honored traditions.

It is often difficult or even impossible to recreate the essence and memories of your family lake home with a stock plan. Stock plans typically cater to city houses that focus on the lifestyles of work and school with the consistency of city lots. Lake homes instead are original spaces carefully set in unique places that are kept in families for generations . Make sure your new lake home embodies tradition and timeless architectural design so that your new space is not labeled as “that house” by neighbors and passers-by.

See some of Kelli’s ideas in action here.

Posted by Scott Freerksen “The Lake Guy”

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