Cottage Industrious

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By Stephen Heyman
A simple cabin on the banks of Lake Erie packs function into just 510 square feet.

One hot summer night in 2012, Gerard Damiani and Debbie Battistone, the husband-and-wife team behind Pittsburgh's studio d'Arc, took themselves out, and, over margaritas, decided to buy a weekend home. 

Cottage Industrious - Photo 1 of 10 - Architects Gerard Damiani and Debbie Battistone turned a budget buy into a condensed cabin getaway.

Architects Gerard Damiani and Debbie Battistone turned a budget buy into a condensed cabin getaway.

They had just one sticking point: price. "I want cheap," Damiani told his wife. She spent the rest of the evening scouring local Erie real estate websites to see if waterfront properties existed for around $25,000. She found exactly one, a 1950s fisherman’s cottage in a tranquil beach resort community within Lake City, two hours north of Pittsburgh. The house was ideally situated on Lake Erie but was in total disrepair, its mint-green concrete walls cracking and sagging into the earth. Inside were two tiny, claustrophobic bedrooms with only seven-foot-high ceilings and an eat-in kitchen and living area in which no one would want to dine. "It was held together with duct tape and spit," says Damiani. "I thought, ‘I could never sleep here.’" 

Cottage Industrious - Photo 2 of 10 - Taking a cue from a nearby farm structure, the couple used thin strips of larch to disguise imperfections in the original concrete block structure.

Taking a cue from a nearby farm structure, the couple used thin strips of larch to disguise imperfections in the original concrete block structure.

Then they climbed a ladder into the attic and saw something exciting: a pitched roof made out of knotty pine. "It looked like the hull of a ship. I just imagined lying in bed and looking up at this thing," Damiani recalls. 

Cottage Industrious - Photo 3 of 10 - At the lake house, the couple host guests, watch through binoculars as birds go by, sketch, grill, and just relax. "We come up here primarily to get away," says Damiani.

At the lake house, the couple host guests, watch through binoculars as birds go by, sketch, grill, and just relax. "We come up here primarily to get away," says Damiani.

It was enough to convince them to buy, but the necessary—and extensive—renovations would take over a year. "We didn’t have the cash to do it all at once, and we didn’t have all the answers all at once," Battistone says. "But we like working slowly and figuring things out as we go along. It’s a luxury that you don’t get with a client’s project." 

Cottage Industrious - Photo 4 of 10 - Romanzia rolling blinds extend from the floor to cover the Architectural Collection glazing by Eagle Windows.

Romanzia rolling blinds extend from the floor to cover the Architectural Collection glazing by Eagle Windows.

Damiani describes the renovation process as "kind of improvisational, like jazz." First they punched out the low ceiling to expose the wood roof and gutted the interior. Next they stabilized the sagging walls. The new wood-slat facade, combined with some underground structural work to the foundation, put the house in good stead. Then they had to figure out the interior. "It’s such a small space. If you start to add a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen—everything gets so marginalized," Damiani says. "Instead, we wanted it to be completely open but really flexible in terms of how it operates." 

Cottage Industrious - Photo 5 of 10 - A custom ladder made of bent steel with oak treads leads to the sleeping loft, while a white oak panel swings opens to reveal an inset window. Longtime collaborator Jeffrey Kramer crafted the home’s wood elements. 

A custom ladder made of bent steel with oak treads leads to the sleeping loft, while a white oak panel swings opens to reveal an inset window. Longtime collaborator Jeffrey Kramer crafted the home’s wood elements. 

The solution was to create one large room, divided into two sections by a swiveling dining room table—it can pivot into the kitchen, extending the food prep area, or swing toward the water, becoming a serene workspace. This division is reinforced by the use of two interior woods: walnut for the kitchen and service area and white oak for the living space. 

Cottage Industrious - Photo 6 of 10 - Chunky lumber chairs of Enzo Mari’s design surround a custom table that pivots 44 degrees. "The chairs fit the overall aesthetic of the room because they’re made out of an ordinary material and fastened together in a rugged way," Damiani explains. Steel tie rods replaced the lowest rafters, allowing for better views of the ceiling.

Chunky lumber chairs of Enzo Mari’s design surround a custom table that pivots 44 degrees. "The chairs fit the overall aesthetic of the room because they’re made out of an ordinary material and fastened together in a rugged way," Damiani explains. Steel tie rods replaced the lowest rafters, allowing for better views of the ceiling.

For such a small project, the house is packed with subtle details, from the wood panel that swings open to reveal a narrow window, to articulated joints that make an ordinary section of drywall pop, to gutters that extend a few feet beyond the roof like petals. 

Cottage Industrious - Photo 7 of 10 - The curve of the door handle follows the golden ratio—the basis for Le Corbusier’s Modulor system of proportions.

The curve of the door handle follows the golden ratio—the basis for Le Corbusier’s Modulor system of proportions.

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