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As architects who ran their own firm for 26 years, Terri Cermak and Todd Rhoades have drafted blueprints for their fair share of clients.

The opportunity to design for themselves came along when the wife-husband duo found their slice of heaven with a 48-acre parcel in Lutsen, Minn. It came with a one-room rustic cabin without electricity or plumbing that wasn't practical long-term, but good enough to serve as a temporary base.

"We camped out in this cabin and started to plan our house," Cermak said.

After spending time in the 340-square-foot space, it inspired them to build a compact cabin.

"We did some things that were somewhat unconventional," Cermak said. "We designed it for two people and not a family gathering space."

Inner piece

The two, who have been married 43 years, met at Kansas State University as architecture students who bonded over their love of design and travel. They took a trip 27 years ago that was extra special, when they traveled to China to adopt their daughter.

While sharing an affection for flying around the globe, they were grounded in their love for the outdoors. Over the years, they started to make frequent trips to the North Shore.

"We both really appreciate solitude and nature," Cermak said. "We started thinking, 'You know, maybe we should have a place up here for ourselves.' "

Their work at Cermak Rhoades Architects (now part of LHB architects), where they specialized in affordable housing, informed their design.

When it came to their cabin, "we tried to balance affordability with quality, making sure we had a really well-designed, energy-efficient building envelope and simple materials that last a long time," Rhoades said.

The design they came up with is an open, two-story cabin. The 780-square-foot main floor has just two freestanding walls to divide gathering spaces, a bedroom and entry/stairwell. The only room that's enclosed is the bathroom.

"Because it's small, we wanted to keep it a simple form," Cermak said. "The interior walls don't go up to the ceiling, so you can see the volume of the space go all the way from front to back. That makes it feel very spacious and airy."

To keep a clean, streamlined look, they used knot-free clear aspen (sourced from Minnesota Timber and Millwork, a multigenerational company that practices sustainable forestry) for walls and the sloped ceiling as well as dark gray porcelain flooring throughout. They also opted for linear recessed LED lights rather than decorative fixtures. And instead of traditional outlets for the kitchen backsplash, they tipped in favor of pop-down receptacles hidden in cabinets.

Taking a cue from the Northwoods location, they incorporated a steel wood-burning stove.

"The whole notion of warmth and fire becomes really important to how you dwell in a northern climate," Rhoades said.

Earth, wind and fire

When it came to siting the cabin, they decided on a ridge that had a natural opening through the maple forest.

"We would have to remove the least amount of trees and the siting was just beautiful towards the north," Rhoades said.

The architects leaned into the sloped site, carving a lower-level walkout with a guest room/studio space, bathroom and utility area. They made the entrance south-facing to work in tandem with Mother Nature.

"Even when we get drifting snow, we can still open up the door even without having to have a huge porch," Rhoades said. "You can get 5-foot drifts and it's quite the scene."

An expanse of glass provides soaring views of the valley. In order to create that panorama, they chose custom frames for the commercial-grade picture windows. East- and west-facing windows capture sunrises and sunsets and allow in breezes.

"We chose those large fixed windows so that there would be no screens or window frame obstructions to interrupt the big vista [while] the operable windows with screens on the side walls provide abundant ventilation," Cermak said.

Sustainable and durable

Having a small blueprint allowed Cermak and Rhoades to reduce their carbon footprint.

"We hope to inspire others to think about keeping a small footprint and investing construction dollars in a high-performance building envelope," Cermak said. "For durability and quality control, just think small."

The cabin is all electric and includes in-floor heat, a tankless water heater and a heat-recovery ventilation system.

"It's also a very well-insulated building. So we made decisions to spend more on things like that," Rhoades said.

The exterior of the cabin is low-maintenance, corrugated steel and cedar. The palette of primarily warm black and gray hues, from the black-clad exterior window frames to the galvanized, standing-seam metal roof, commingle with nature.

"The silver changes color as the sky changes color," Rhoades said. "So when you look at the roof, it doesn't contrast that, it often just blends into the sky and the surroundings."

Designed for two

The project, named an AIA Star Tribune Home of the Month winner recognizing top residential design, was lauded by judges as a design that can serve as an outline for others looking to build compact, efficient, quality spaces that tune into their surroundings.

For Cermak and Rhoades, such accolades confirm that they were right to design for themselves.

"It just feels exactly right, the layout, the finishes," Cermak said. "It's just a really nice relaxing studio apartment with great views. And the kitchen is compact because we just don't need a lot."

After 42 years in the business, the mostly retired couple spend a lot of time at their cabin.

When they're not enjoying nature or entertaining the occasional — and small — group of guests, Cermak makes good use of the walkout-level studio, where she makes crafts and handbags. Rhoades uses the old cabin as his woodworking shop, making spoons, bowls and furniture.

"It just makes you think about what you really need to live your daily life. You don't have to plan for those five or six times a year when you might need something else in a bigger room or a bigger dining room or whatever," Cermak said. "Just pare it down and keep it simple — and it's a lot easier to clean that way."

About this project

A small cabin for two on a wooded 48-acre site takes cues from the solitude of the forest and elevated views of the wilderness. The 780-square-foot main level tucks into a canopy of maple trees while the lower level anchors into the hill. Two free-standing walls divide spaces only where necessary.

Designing firm: Cermak Rhoades Architects. (The firm has since been acquired by LHB.)

Project team: Todd Rhoades, AIA; Terri Cermak, AIA

Project partners: General contractors Matt Ziller and Casey Foster, Higher Mark Construction; structural engineers Mattson Macdonald Young and Adam Neigebauer, P.E.