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

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.

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