Three Joined Cabins Turn This Virginia Retreat Into a Modern Take on Camp

By Dwell and John Gendall

For some people, building a house may seem like a daunting commitment to permanence—a kind of spatial lockdown. But for husband and wife Danny and Katie MacNelly, settling down became a conduit for change.

Written by John Gendall

We were living in New York when our first son was born," recalls Katie. "And when he was one year old, and I was pregnant with baby number two, we decided it was time for a change." So, the growing family left the city and headed to Richmond, Virginia. But having moved directly from one city to another, they also wanted a countryside getaway, for their sons—now numbering three, ages 10, 9, and 5—to explore the outdoors. "We love the city, but we wanted our boys to be able to interface with nature, too," says Katie.

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Sited on a long and narrow 40-acre plot, the home opens to expansive views of the river, to the north—and plenty of space for the kids to play.

Photo by James Ewing

Drawing a radius around Richmond —anything within an hour-and-a-half drive, they decided, was fair game—they quickly settled on a long, narrow 40-acre site, just off a bend of the James River. "There was something poetic about the fact that we were upstream from the same river that passes not too far from our city house," Katie remarks.

Katie and Danny, who had first met as University of Virginia architecture students, had started their own practice, ARCHITECTUREFIRM, along with another former UVA classmate. Together, the couple designed their family’s country retreat, choosing to build a three-bedroom house plus a separate garage. "Siting the house was pretty easy," says Katie. "There’s a bluff, which is at the highest point overlooking the river, so we decided to position the house there." Not wanting to muddle their country experience with cars, they positioned the garage a short walk away—giving the kids the feeling of hiking in. "We liked the idea of having to walk around to it," adds Danny.

Desiring a home in a natural setting for their three sons, ages 5, 9, and 10, architects Katie and Danny MacNelly built a three-volume residence near Virginia’s James River. With a focus on outdoor social spaces, Katie likens the overall program to "loose coals around a campfire."

Photo by James Ewing 

The architects decided to break the house into three distinct cabins, which accomplished several key objectives, chief among them to frame different views of the forested river valley. The couple also had pragmatic considerations, such as aiming to keep glass— a material that’s more expensive than wood—at a minimum. "We used windows in smart locations, to use glass economically," Danny explains. Their choice of window placement also gives the house a defined front and back, with an open, windowed side looking out onto the river, to the north, and an opaque, sheltered, southern-oriented side. Outside, a large, open hearth has been built into the facade. "It’s like a campsite in the woods that really opens up to the forest and the sky," says Katie, of the distinct experience offered by each side of the house. "In the summer, we live in the front of the house," says Danny, "but, in the winter, we spend more time on that protected side."

Though they opted to use cedar for all the building surfaces, they created a clear distinction between outside and inside, blackening the wood used to clad the exterior and whitewashing pieces applied to the interior. "We like the dark-light dichotomy," Katie says."It helps to brighten up the inside.

The spacious detached garage stows a bevy of kayaks and inner tubes, not to mention the family car.

Photo by James Ewing

"In the detached garage, the family keeps a small flotilla of kayaks and inner tubes, which, over the course of late spring through early fall, sees a lot of use—the family can float or paddle from their property’s riverside edge to nearby Scottsville. When the weather turns cold, "There’s a lot of burning that happens—a lot of wood chopping," says Danny, laughing and pointing to the massive fire pit on the riverside as well as the built-in fireplace out back. "The fireplaces are as big as we could build them without having to make expensive custom pieces," he adds.

For the interior layout, the architects took into account the unpredictability of a young family, dividing different uses between the three volumes. The kitchen and a living room are sited in the central area, where the family spends most of its time. The island doubles as a dining table, so they move seamlessly from food preparation to a seated meal, all on the same surface.

ARCHITECTUREFIRM used rough-sawn cedar paneling throughout, cladding the exterior with blackened pieces, and whitewashing the interior surfaces to form a dramatic visual contrast between inside and out. A painting by artist Tim Harriss hangs above a Crane bench by Double Butter near the entry hall

Photo by James Ewing

For the frequent occasions in which the family invites guests out for the weekend, the table comfortably seats 12. Because the kitchen is an actively used living space, the architects wanted to keep it orderly. Katie explains, "Our approach to kitchens, when they are a part of the main living space, is to hide every appliance." With that in mind, they tucked everything into cupboards made with the same light-colored cedar used throughout the interiors. A second, attached structure houses a master bedroom and a bunk room for the kids, with eight built-in beds, custom-made for the three boys and their friends. On the other side, a third cabin—which is detached but connected with a deck—serves as a guest suite and has come to be called The Lair.

Uses for the three rectilinear pavilions are distinctly categorized: The dining room and kitchen are located in the central volume; a guest bedroom and media room are situated in the west wing; the master bedroom and a bunk room, for the boys, are in the east wing.

Photo by James Ewing

The kitchen island, designed by ARCHITECTUREFIRM and custom-fabricated with pine by Peter Johnson Builders, doubles as a dining table. It's paired with Inmod barstools, and a brass-and-crystal Sputnik chandelier by Jonathan Adler, which hangs overhead.

Photo by James Ewing

Breaking up the house into distinct components resulted in an added bonus: Since each of the three structures has its own heating and cooling units, the couple only turn on the systems when needed, which significantly reduces heating and cooling expenses. For the husband-and-wife architects, though, one of the biggest advantages is that they can add additional modules as their boys grow older.

Unlike the north-facing side of the home, the south-facing facade is completely windowless and opaque, with the exception of an outdoor hearth built directly into its side. The lounge chairs are from IKEA, and the MacNellys sourced the slate flagstones and gravel surrounding the home from a local quarry.

Photo by James Ewing

"We often talk about building another volume to face the front of the house, closing that circle on the other side," Katie says, referring to the area immediately south of the present house. The site’s contours drop down on that side, too, which would give that hypothetical future structure views to another stretch of James River, a small creek down the hill, and into the woods. As Danny puts it, "It’s an architect’s dream to have a place like this, with all this land. It will allow us to experiment for a long time." 

James River House


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