In 2012, while enjoying a break from school on a fishing trip in rural Finland, Timm Bergmann and Jonas Becker hit on an intriguing idea. Why not put their design education to the test and design and build a lakeside cabin?
"We wanted to test our knowledge of the first years in university and thought it would be a great chance," explain Bergmann and Becker, who solidified their design/build vision over a few beers in the sauna later that night. When they started, the duo were in their third year of undergrad—Bergmann pursuing architecture, and Becker studying urban design.
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The young designers leased a small lakeside site where the forest opened into a glade so as to avoid cutting down trees for site prep. With no electricity, running water, or even road access, the land was "untouched," says Bergmann, adding that their desire to respect the natural landscape influenced the design. "It was important to us to not dominate nature."
A commitment to sustainable ideals, a tiny budget, and the site’s swampy conditions shaped the design of the minimalist and prefabricated timber cabin, which serves as a nature-connected retreat away from city stresses.
Since the site lacked vehicular access, the designers focused first on building a 650-foot-long elevated pathway through the swamp and the forest to the nearest road. To stabilize the building on swampy soil, they built a foundation using concrete-filled steel pipes anchored into bedrock—the most eco-friendly solution they could implement without compromising the building’s durability.
"We see the cabin as an observer of the fantastic landscape," says the duo, who hid the cabin behind the first tree line. "The house can be erased without any harm to nature. Therefore, we explicitly banned the use of a concrete foundation for construction of the house."
They also decided to use off-site prefabrication. Fortunately, Bergmann’s grandparents’ farm was close by and they used the old barn as their construction hall. They prefabricated all 17 frames out of locally produced wood, selected for its low cost, sustainability, and forgiving nature.
The designers used locally produced recycled newspaper for insulation, and covered it with 18-millimeter pine plywood sheets. Since each modular frame would have to be carried over the wooden walkway, they made sure each unit weighed less than 220 pounds.
"The assembling and building part took five months, but we had also our studies, work, and life in Germany," note the duo, who spent three summer vacations to finish the cabin. Friends from Germany would occasionally visit to help with construction, which earned them lifelong rights to use the cabin for holidays.
"As we built everything ourselves, we not only cut costs, but we were also able to make changes along the way. As a result, we extended the terrace, built the roof ourselves—contrary to the initial plan—and made the stovepipes ourselves," says Bergmann.
"Sitting on the roof, pulling a stovepipe through the ceiling, and then sealing the roof—that’s something else. We wanted to experience these processes instead of just planning them in theory."
Their bootstrap mentality and the minimalist design—there is no electricity or running water—helped the pair stay within a budget of just $13,449—the majority of which was spent on the double-glazed windows and timber materials. Following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the 280-square-foot cabin serves as a space to reflect, exercise self-reliance, and live simply with nature.
"We wanted to show that a house does not have to be big," explains Bergmann. "Building something beautiful does not have to be expensive," adds Becker. The cabin not only received building permission and approval, but also meets fire regulations.
"We think that luxury can always be found in detail and small architecture when it provides for the needs of the people living there," say the duo, who have since founded Studio Politaire. "Sometimes it is even better to reduce and realize what actually is necessary to achieve a better result. Because of that, we came up with the project name ‘Small but Fine.’"