If ever there was a movie title to describe a North Shore cabin with stunning vistas of Lake Superior, "A Room With a View" would be fitting. "Rocky" might work, too, given the geologic challenges posed by the terrain that architects Todd Hansen and Ian McLellan would need to design around.
"There are only about 18 inches of soil on top of bedrock, so unless you want to blast out the basement, you have to build on top of the bedrock," said Hansen.
This meant designing the house on a slab foundation and shallow crawlspace so that the floor follows the grade to stay close to the ground. "You kind of feel the topography inside the house," added McLellan, also of Albertsson Hansen Architecture.
The scenic property is on a ridgetop a few miles outside of Tofte, Minn., surrounded by mature balsam, spruce and aspen with birds-eye views of Lake Superior. The owners, Christina and Erik Andersen, purchased it in 2018 after spending time at their friends' place next door (respective "guys" and "gals" weekends).
Both returned from the getaways saying how much they loved the spot and how it felt like they were in the mountains doing mountain things — hiking, off-road biking and skiing, but still only 2 ½ hours from their home in Grand Rapids, Minn. "The timing was good, too," said Erik. "Christina's family had just sold their cabin and we wanted a place to start new traditions."
This project was Round 2 for the Andersens and Albertsson Hansen. The firm also designed the couple's Scandinavian-modern house in Grand Rapids. "They know our taste and could whittle down choices for us," Christina said. "That saved a lot of time and energy."
The new cabin, dubbed North Shore Overlook, is a 2022-23 AIA Star Tribune Home of the Month winner, a partnership with the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects that honors residential design.
"I like how it steps into the house and coordinates with the natural landscape and topography of the bedrock," a judge commented. "From a scale perspective, it didn't rise above the trees … [and] the interior visuals were pretty striking."
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Nordic meets industrial
Aesthetically, the couple wanted to carry over the clean Nordic vibe from their primary home but add a dose of industrial edge — dark window frames, exposed metal, black steel and rough-sawn wood to create a little tension and blur the boundary between refined and rugged. "With this project, we wanted to expand the definition of what rustic can be," said Hansen.
Recognizing that a big part of life at this property would be gathering, Christina and Erik prioritized square footage in common areas, including the kitchen, living room and screened-in porch/deck. They also wanted Lake Superior views from every room.
"We hoped it would feel like you're in the landscape, tucked in the woods," said Erik.
On this, the couple said, Hansen and McLellan delivered, especially in the soaring living room, where large windows frame an almost surreal vista of trees and lake, punctuating the cabin's placement at the ridge's edge. The windows' divided-light pattern is a nod to Edwin Lundie's iconic Lutsen Lodge down the road, a source of inspiration, according to Hansen. Plus, the grids temper the expansive view and make the space feel cozier.
Balancing the view is a two-story blackened steel fireplace with a unique grain that serves as both art and a clever way to disguise the television.
Few things epitomize a Minnesota cabin more than a screened-in porch. This one, situated off the kitchen, seamlessly connects to an outdoor deck and firepit thanks to a nearly wall-sized screened sliding door and continuous ipe wood flooring.
"In the summer, we do mornings on the porch, spend most of the day outside and then are back out there in the evening flowing in and out, grilling, sitting by the fire, eating and hanging out," said Christina.
Befitting the more casual nature of a vacation home, the Andersens decided to forgo a separate dining area and instead use the massive kitchen island (which can seat 10) as the place for meals, too. "We learned from our house that friends tend to gather around the island anyway, so why not maximize it," said Erik.
The couple's bedroom is on the main level, modestly sized, with little more than a king bed and floor-to-ceiling windows facing the lake. An en suite includes a bathtub in a niche surrounded by more windows — a peaceful spot to soak away the chill after hiking or skiing. Even the water closet has a view of Lake Superior, so serious were the couple about keeping a connection to the outdoors.
Two guest rooms on the second floor are just big enough for a queen bed plus a built-in twin trundle, but otherwise simple. "We didn't want to make the bedrooms overly appealing to hang out in," said Christina, noting that each of the couple's teenage sons can fit friends into the rooms now and their own families later.
An upstairs loft is a hangout space that can be transformed into sleeping quarters for overflow guests. But unlike most lofts found in traditional cabin design, this one is enclosed by a glass wall with motorized blinds, creating a more practical space for boisterous kids and late sleepers.
When the Andersens are here, they hit the trails in all seasons and need a place for their bikes, helmets, skis, boots and other gear. Hansen and McLellan gave them options. A small carport beside the garage provides a hosing-off spot and storage for the family's mountain bikes and there are two drop areas inside; one at the front entrance and another between the garage and cabin, a mudroom they call "the link."
"There's so much snow up here and Erik and Christina felt an attached garage would be good. This adjacent space offers a lot of utility and complements the overall design," said Hansen.
Outfitted with a heated concrete floor, benches and a mix of custom and Ikea cabinets, it serves as a dry, warm place for wet, messy shoes and equipment. And yes, it, too, has a view. In this case, of pretty birch and conifer trees.
The cabin's exterior is predominantly clad in dark board and batten in varying widths and thicknesses. The orientation of the boards is also mixed — vertical on the house and garage and horizontal lap siding on the link. The variety brings out shadows and helps the structure feel more at home in the natural environment.
A well-trod path between the Andersens' property and their friends' next door speaks to another benefit of the cabin.
Erik explains, "We all live in Grand Rapids, but with kids in different activities, we rarely see each other. Up here, we spend lots of time together."
Laurie Junker is a Twin Cities-based writer specializing in home design and architecture.
About this project
A North Shore cabin is carefully sited within rocky topography while taking cues from the owners' European industrial aesthetic and the nearby Lutsen Lodge designed by Edwin Lundie.
Designing firm: Albertsson Hansen Architecture.
Project team: Todd Hansen, AIA, CID; Ian McLellan, AIA, project manager; Abbie Seba, AIA, project designer; Sarah Hughes, ASID, interior designer.
Project partners: Howard Homes, general contractor.