Dreaming of Cabin Life

August 2006

Susan Stiles Dowell - Sunset Magazine

Smart ideas for small spaces, plus the hottest spots to by or build a getaway. Getting back to nature.

Long before he went to architecture school, Andy Neumann was a champion surfer. So it’s no wonder he refers to his 800-square-foot, solar powered retreat as “the surf shack.” The strongly geometric cube-shaped cabin, located 2 miles up a canyon in California’s Central Coast, packs a lot of design ideas – from storage walls to a hearth desk – into a compact space overlooking a creek in rolling, oak-studded ranchland.

“I had the luxury of camping here for three years and taking my time to get a bead on my design,” says Andy, who shares the retreat with his wife, Yvonne. “I knew I wanted to experience the outdoors while being sheltered in an uncomplicated way.” The kitchen/living/dining area and the enclosed bathroom occupy the cube; a bedroom is attached on one side like a saddlebag. The shedlike main roof is actually two triangular planes forming a trough that echoes the canyon slope and channels runoff to a salvaged anchor chain. Sliding window walls on four sides and at a corner of the living area open the house to the landscape.

The remote site is in a high fire-risk zone, so Andy used non-combustive building materials (including 10-inch-thick plaster and metal lath walls that are the color of the earth) and eliminated roof overhangs, a common transfer point for wildfires. Electric power is generated by solar panels on top of the south-facing detached, one–car garage. Large capacity military-surplus batteries are used to store the energy, eliminating the need for a generator. The cabin’s mechanical systems are in the garage, which keeps the main living quarters tranquil. Propane powers a very quiet refrigerator and stove, and heats the water for the radiant heating in the poured concrete floors.

The layout of the cabin exemplifies Andy’s pared down aesthetic. “My brother-in-law built me a large maple ‘box’ that I pushed into the corner,” he says. The outside wall of the box contains cubicles for kitchen storage and books. Inside is a bathroom and walk-in closet; on top is a study/loft with two beds.

The cabin is both a launch pad for surfing and a place to relax in the rugged landscape. As for the sleek geometry, Andy says, “It honors the spirit of freedom that drew me here in the first place.”