Lake Effect: A Minnesota Cabin Renovation Creates an Earth-Friendly Home

A homeowner’s deep commitment to understanding the materials she uses— where they come from and how they’re made—makes all the difference.

| July/August 2003

  • The artwork above the tub is cut Inuit stone. Artist Diane Daniels made the mirror and frame. The bathroom counter, as in the kitchen, is made from local Lake Superior Greenstone.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Medora’s bathroom greets the outside with these high windows from Loewen. An Inuit whale-bone carving from Sivertson Gallery (in Grand Marais, Minnesota) sits in the windowsill.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Medora Woods’s cabin lies in a forest near Tofte, Minnesota, on the edge of Lake Superior. The cabin embodies the ecology and cultural history of the land, as well as with Medora’s commitment to treading lightly on the environment. This sitting area on an outside deck yields a grand view across the Great Lake and a visual meeting of land, water, and sky.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • The cabin floor plan was expanded minimally from its original design to reduce upsetting new land.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • The cabin’s roof was actually taken off and rounded to maximize sunlight and warmth.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Tofte Construction helped with the excavation for this garage. The soil and vegetation uprooted in excavation were subsequently redistributed.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • The cabinetry in the kitchen was fabricated by Tofte Construction and made of recycled wood from Duluth Timber Company. The kitchen countertop is made of Lake Superior Greenstone, among the oldest rock on the planet at 2.6 billion years old. Granite Designs, in Longville, Minnesota, helped design it.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • A row of clerestory windows opposite the curvature of the ceiling allows light to pass through and wash the walls and roof as the day progresses.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Medora Woods calls herself a “roving, trouble-making grandmother.”
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • The bric-a-brac on this shelf was salvaged from the original cabin.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Down a picturesque dirt road—within a layer of forest—is Medora’s cabin, built in 1947.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Medora carefully collected the lumber for this project from recycled and sustainable sources. Architect Sarah Nettleton, designer Doran Thayer, and furniture maker Marc Gasslund were collaborators.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Simple furnishings complete the sleeping quarters. Bedding came from the Garnet Hill catalog (garnethill.com), and furniture maker Marc Gasslund built the bedside tables.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Medora Woods’s cabin lies in a forest near Tofte, Minnesota, on the edge of Lake Superior. The cabin embodies the ecology and cultural history of the land, as well as with Medora’s commitment to treading lightly on the environment. This sitting area on an outside deck yields a grand view across the Great Lake and a visual meeting of land, water, and sky.
    Photography By Terrence Moore

By the time Medora Woods had reached the end of the dirt road, she was in love. Winding through nearly six acres of birch and pine forest, the road ended at a simple 1947 cabin nestled on a wooded point overlooking the rock-lined Lake Superior coast near Tofte, Minnesota. In 1997, the former lawyer and Jungian analyst bought the property knowing she wanted to renovate the cabin for year-round use—but without the materials waste, energy consumption, and site destruction such projects usually generate.

“Let’s build an earth-friendly house,” Medora told her architect, Sarah Nettleton. The two then launched into a design and construction process devoted to figuring out what that meant.

Medora wanted the site to dictate the building’s size, materials, and design. She wanted energy needs fueled via renewable sources. She was willing to explore and incorporate untried sustainable design technologies. At the same time, she wanted to render visible the invisible connections between a product and the natural species and systems that make its manufacture possible.

In essence, Medora wanted a cabin that demonstrates what it means to build lightly on the land. “From the beginning,” she says, “Sarah and I understood ourselves to be in a transformative learning process about what sustainable design is and means. There is no sustainable design manual with lists of available products and technologies. Every question leads to a dozen more. There is ongoing tension between having a grand idea and making it practical, between wanting to be responsible for the impact of the project on the present and on the future.”



The 960-square-foot cabin is a physical manifestation of such complex and interrelated factors as the site’s ecological and cultural history, Medora’s needs and beliefs, and an architect and client’s trailblazing approach to sustainable design. In 2001 it won an AIA Minnesota Honor Award. In 2002, the American Institute of Architects’ National Committee on the Environment named the cabin one of the Top Ten Green Projects. Because the cabin is considered a demonstration project for sustainable building in a cold climate, Medora and Nettleton recently completed a website that walks visitors through all aspects of the project’s construction and design.

Beyond greenwash



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