A Simple Plan for Lakeside Living
Fine Homebuilding: Houses Annual Issue, Summer 2004

A low-budget vacation house proves that simple doesn't have to mean shortchanged
by Gene Desmidt

In the summer of 2000, my wife, Sharon, and I were driving back to our home in the Bay Area from a remote piece of property that we own in northern California. We were exhausted from the dusty, unpaved roads, the dry heat, and the dogs drooling in the back. This is no way to unwind. We decided to look for a vacation retreat that was closer to home and preferably on some water. After looking at nearly a dozen houses, we found a piece of land that once had a resort hotel on it. Long ago, it burned to the ground, and now the site had two overgrown building sites less than 50 ft. from a small lake. We bought it on the spot.

Big bites reduce small budget
After buying the land, we had $150,000 to complete the project. Right away we found out that a good chunk of it was going into the ground. Because we wanted to build close to the water, we couldn't install a traditional septic tank and leach field. Instead, we would have to install a sewage-treatment system complete with a pump to convey effluent to a leach field 1000 ft. behind the house. That lightened the checkbook by $30,000.

Next, we learned that getting electricity to the site would cost $7,500 for the pole, the line, and the transformer. Now that our budget had been reduced by almost 25%, we had to make some hardheaded choices about what kind of house we could build with the remaining funds.

Clearly, the house had to be small and composed of modest materials without fussy finishes. It also had to be easy to build because seasoned carpenters are tough to find in Lake County. Sharon and I figured we could get what we needed in 875 sq. ft. If we could keep the house to $125 per sq. ft., we could do it.

In my work as a contractor, I typically build expensive houses. The company motto is "Perfect is close enough." But for my own house, we changed it to "Close enough is perfect."

Saving money starts with the plan
Before learning that we needed a sewage-treatment facility, our plan was to build three small structures with curving fronts next to one another, facing the lake. But curved walls cost a lot more than straight ones.

With the help of our beloved architect, Helen Degenhardt, the early plan evolved into a rectangle with a shed roof . A house doesn't get much simpler than this, but a couple of twists energize the plan.

Mini-Cabins as Guest Rooms

We have lots of friends who join us for weekends. After a year of tucking guest beds on couches, in cars, and in tents, we decided the best way to give us all a little privacy would be to build a couple of tiny sleeping cabins.

The long-gone lodge, the Laurel Dell, included a concrete bulkhead at the water's edge. It was still in great shape, so I designed two 8-ft. by 12-ft. cabanas cantilevered over the bulkhead and took the plans to the building department. Application denied: Zoning wouldn't allow us to build over the water.

At about the same time, Sharon was on eBay looking for old postcards of the lodge. She found one that revealed five cabanas with decks hanging over the water (inset photo, facing page). Vintage postcard in hand, I went back to the building department and showed it to the head inspector, asking her if we could "grandfather" our cabanas. She and the zoning department were convinced, and our permit was approved (and we sent her a dozen roses).

We framed all the cabana walls in my shop in Oakland, and then trucked them to the lake. It took three people one day to install the walls and rafters. I spent many more weekends with my son Danny, putting down deck boards, building the railings, and trimming out the cabin interiors.

The floors cantilever so far beyond the bulkhead that we had to install piers uphill to keep the joists from lifting. As a result, the floors are a little bouncy. But so far, nobody who's stayed in the little purple and yellow cabins has complained about it.
The two primary rooms-the master bedroom and the living room/kitchen-are separated by a foyer that is akin to an interior courtyard. Accordion doors fold back, linking the foyer with the patio. On warm summer evenings, we swing open the doors and live out there.

We wanted the interior of the house to be visually open, from the bedroom to the foyer to the living room/kitchen. But we also wanted the option of complete privacy when the living room doubles as a guest room. The solution: insulated barn doors that open up each space or completely close each one off. The bath is off the foyer, accessible from each bedroom.

Being as close to the ground as possible was important to us, and choosing a concrete-slab foundation and floor fit right into that goal by keeping the floor just a few inches above grade. The slab also saved us the cost of forming concrete stemwalls, floor joists, and an 18-in. crawlspace with all the necessary vents and access hatches.

We left the concrete (pigmented dark green) exposed in the entry foyer and the bathroom. Both have floor drains to catch the runoff from the bathroom shower or dripping swimmers just back from the lake. We prefer, however, not to walk on concrete all the time. So the master bedroom and living room have hardwood floors atop the slab.

By the end of the project, we were relieved to see that our cost-conscious approach worked. The house ended up costing $110,000 and change. That didn't include about $5,000 worth of building materials that I had been gathering over the years for a project like this. And it didn't include the time that I spent swinging a hammer and managing the subcontractors. But 90% of the work was done by locals. And it's fair to say that if the house had been any larger or any more complicated, we couldn't have done it.

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