Modern Cottage Renovation in Michigan

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By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
A sagging ranch house is reborn as a spacious cabin with a soaring roof in Harbert, Michigan.

When a Chicagoan sought to provide a little spit and polish to his aging cabin in Harbert, Michigan, a low-key 1970s ranch house, his sentimental attachment encouraged a renovation. According to architect Greg Howe of Searl Lamaster Howe, who helped reimagine the weekend retreat, renovating helped strip away the unnecessary and focus on simple and honest construction.

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“When you’re doing a second home, a lot of the character of the design is defined by what it isn’t,” says architect Greg Howe, as a way of explaining the minimalistic approach that was taken on this Michigan weekend home. “If you think of it as cold, you have to remember, the setting, and accessing nature, is the point.”

"If he hadn’t done something, it would have collapsed in a few years," he says. "It was built simply with a sagging roof. Our client pushed it in the direction of a renovation, and had some specific issues corrected. The steep metal roof, for instance, overcame the functional shortcomings of the original and really became one of the key elements."

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Howe’s client had a sentimental attachment to the old home, shown above in an old photo. It drew the architect’s focus toward a minimal, open-plan renovation. “It had the worst smell I had ever smelled in a house due to moisture,” says Howe.

While the process simplified, the end result was a cabin with a lot more character. 

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Completed in 2013, the roughly 1,500-square-foot cabin provides an open living area framed by white trusses and concrete floors. The dining table was acquired by the owner from a local inn, and is surrounded by the Eames molded plastic Eiffel side chairs from Design Within Reach. The kitchen features a Grohe faucet, a wood bowl from a shop in Harbert, and an Ikea vase.

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While the cottage is ideal for long summer weekends, a geothermal system that warms the concrete floors makes it an inviting spot in the winters, too. The sofa and table in the living room came from Gus* Modern, and the armchair is Mitchell Gold. The sideboard against the back wall is a vintage piece from the owner’s collection.

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The second-story, basically a catwalk that threads between the large, exposed trusses, is mostly residual space used for storage.

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The 400-square-foot porch, a central focus of the home, was wrapped in a Kawneer window framing and screen—probably the biggest material indulgence. A south-facing skylight above the porch draws in air and ventilates the entire cottage, dropping temperatures about 10 degrees. The table-and-chair set on the left is by Brown Jordan, while the coffee table and chairs are from Sojourn in Sawyer, Michigan.

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The home is clad in galvalume, a low-maintenance, zinc-coated metal, to make upkeep easier. Prefabricated, 10- to 12-inch-thick panels in the roof provide insulation, and the low walls are packed with limestone.

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The modest bedroom looks towards the yard and part of the owner’s garden. The table, by Jayson Home, holds a vintage lamp and is flanked by a Spring Lounge chair by Cappellini.