A sustainable cabin design using salvaged materials from the original family lake house earns first LEED certified home on Lake Martin in 2014.
Architect Rebecca Dunn Bryant’s sustainable cabin design on Lake Martin preserves the wooded ecology of the lakeside property with an energy efficient design that works in harmony with the natural resources available.
Story by Betsy Iler and Photos by Kenneth Boone
originally published in July, 2014
An architect worth her salt works closely with Lake Martin homeowners to translate their lifestyle, needs and dreams into a retreat that is roomy enough for 24 children and grandchildren on a holiday weekend but is still cozy enough for just two the rest of the time. When that architect is the homeowners’ daughter who seasons the design with timber from the grandparents’ lake cabin that originally occupied the site, the result is a feast for the heart and soul, as well as the eyes.
Fairhope architect Rebecca Dunn Bryant’s grandparents, Harold and Martha Dunn, purchased an eclectic cabin on Lake Martin’s Tallassee Slough shortly after their eldest son Brad entered college. Over the years, they adjusted the cabin’s space to accommodate the growing family.
“I remember coming here in the summer and looking for frogs with my grandfather,” Bryant recalled. Brad and his wife Katie took ownership of the cabin while Rebecca was in college, and they also made substantial changes to the building, but as their children started families of their own, it wasn’t long before another major renovation was needed.
“We spent four or five years trying to do things to fix the old cabin, but ultimately, we had to tear it down and start over,” Bryant said. “But we were very attached to the old cabin. There were a lot of memories in it, so we used the wood from the old cabin to build the new one on largely the same footprint. Most of the painted or pickled wood in the house is from the old cabin! Every room holds an element of that original lake home in its walls, ceilings, closet doors and headboards, but the use of the cabin woods with salvaged materials from other sources and new materials where needed blends into a cozy, cohesive design throughout the home.”
Bryant had been designing LEED certified commercial buildings since 2000. About five years ago she started a new firm WATERSHED, offering green building design, consulting, and professional educational services. These days, the economic recovery in the residential market – and a growing public interest in green building trends – has allowed Bryant to pursue her interest in green home design, while she continues to consult on the commercial side. Fortunately, she finds it convenient to work at her parents’ 5,000-square foot cabin on Lake Martin.
“The original cabin was actually half that size, but we dug a basement for the main house and added a second story to the guesthouse to double the space without disturbing more of the land,” Bryant said. “We’ve always treasured how this place feels different.” Bryant added. “It’s not about the view of the house from lake. It’s about connecting with the outdoors.” Bryant’s parents wanted a house and garden that were gentle on the lake, a place where the family could nurture their relationships with each other while they cultivated relationships with nature in a treasured place that was designed around the concept of sustainability.
They wanted a home that economized on materials and had a deep connection with the lot’s history, even as it embraced modern green building practices. In addition, Bryant said, allergies run in the family, so building green was a healthy alternative for them, as well as the environment. “We used good filters, energy recovery ventilation, and a central vacuum system, she noted. “There is no drywall in the entire house, no paper-faced mold food, and we used the lowest emitting glues, caulks, paint and other materials that we could find.
Cabin Sets Sustainable Design Precedence
“My grandparents were raised to be frugal. This house was designed to respect those values by con- saving materials, water and energy. Water Sense plumbing fixtures reduce water use by 40 percent and energy efficient design and construction have slashed the energy use by almost 60 percent,” she added. The house was LEED Silver certified last month , making it the first sustainably designed, LEED certified cabin on the lake.
But it was a long road in getting there, Bryant said. After the determination was made to remove the old cabin, Bryant and her parents spent a year in the planning stage and two years in construction. They wanted to remain true to the family foundation of the original lake home, but designing a home that would sleep four generations – ranging from age 3 to 95 – in the original cabin’s footprint required economy of space.
“We decided to let the entry share space with the dining room.” Bryant said. “The dining room feels larger, and the entry has a dramatic view of the lake.” So just inside the front door, under a spectacular ceiling of 160-year-old roughhewn beams with posts that were reclaimed from an 1849 farmhouse, a cozy wooden table and chairs welcomes the family when they arrive.
Their contractor, Mike Kane of Kane Building, LLC, found the old farmhouse in Lafayette, Alabama, after construction had begun and thought its wood a fitting complement to that salvaged from the original lake cabin. Much of the farmhouse wood was milled into the new flooring at the lake house. “The cost of demo and remilling the wood was about the same as purchasing salvaged wood flooring, but we got much more than flooring out of it,” Bryant noted. “We conserved local materials and added to the story of the house. We also met some really interesting local craftsmen- not everyone has the patience and skills to work with salvaged wood and all its imperfections.
“The entry opens onto the spacious living room and galley kitchen, where termite-damaged wood from the farmhouse was used for the cabinets, its scars lending a warm aesthetic to the space. Most of the Energy Star kitchen appliances are faced with custom wood panels, so they blend into the room, and a raised, durable solid-surface island hides food preparation and dirty dishes from view of the living room. “Remember, we’re talking about four generations gathering here,” Bryant said. “That’s a lot of dirty dishes. There are numerous lighting choices in the kitchen, so lights can be low when not in use, and only the areas being used can be lit.”
In the living room, local stone was used to build the fireplace, which is flanked with lake view windows. Beyond the fireplace, a lakeside deck offers a pleasant setting for morning coffee. The living room’s vaulted ceiling, comfortable furnishings and a warm rug mirror the simplicity of the lake setting, and almost unnoticeable, a flat screen television fits neatly into an alcove on a side wall.
“It pulls out from the wall and rotates for viewing from different areas in the room; Bryant explained; and then, she conceded, “But there is a hidden outlet above the fire- place, in case a big game is on, and someone just has to move it to center stage.” A sparsely wooded view of the lake commands the focus of the living space, a design objective that carries through the entire house, even in the understated, elegant style of the bathrooms. Bryant credited decorator Sallie Aman of Ruby Ansley Interiors with the cohesive blending of indoor and outdoor spaces with respect for function and privacy.
Each bathroom was designed to accommodate multiple occupants when necessary. The commodes and pebbled showers are housed in private rooms adjacent to a central lavatory with sink cabinets designed to look like furniture and mirrors reflecting lake views. Wrap-around windows, inspired by the historic Cherokee Bluffs infirmaries, are used in the living room and bedrooms, offering premium natural light and views.
“In the 1930s, they understood that light, fresh air and views were important for our health and that is still true today,” Bryant said. “You see it in landscape paintings. People find walking through a shady trail towards a lighted clearing soothing,” Bryant explained. “We tried to align windows through the house, so you never walk down a corridor towards a wall, but always walk toward a window offering light and a view.” In the main floor guest suite, two built-in chifforobes flank the bed. The concealed closet door design, which Bryant used throughout the house, kept the clean, uncluttered look of uninterrupted walls.
This same material-and-space-saving concept was used in the ceilings, too, where exposed framing adds height and saves on materials. But it required creative placement of ductwork, as well as plumbing and electrical lines, Bryant noted. So in the central hallway, closet floors were elevated to make room for supply lines that are placed between floors and ceilings in conventional construction.
Through double doors opposite the bed and bath wings in the living/kitchen, Bryant added a screened porch of tremendous size, large enough to set up tables, so the entire family can share a meal in one place. The grilling center is housed on a smaller deck just outside the porch, so the cook can still be part of the action without filling the space with smoke. The three-bedroom guesthouse, dubbed the kids’ zone,’ can only be accessed through the screened porch. There is no other outside door. “It’s just a little more secure,” Bryant said. “They have their own space, but they are still very much connected to the main house, and we can get from one to the other without having to go out in the weather.”
The guesthouse includes two downstairs bedrooms, a bathroom and an upstairs bunk- room. In one bedroom single bunks have been placed in alcoves on the walls, flanking the central queen bed, to serve as cozy reading nooks or children’s beds. The lower floor in the guesthouse is an exposed concrete slab, which has been scored, grouted and sealed, and the ceiling decking was made from the old cabin’s flooring. The basement of the old house comprises the ‘teenager overflow,’ as well as the woodshop and game room, and even though the floor is poured concrete, the old cabin continues to have a presence. Above a long workbench made from the beam of the old farmhouse, stacks of cabin wood wait their turn for recreation.
“Dad has a host of projects planned,” Bryant said. Basement hanging beds, fitted with double mattresses are just one of those projects. The design allows the extra mattresses to be placed on the floor for grandchildren’s spend-the-night parties. The game room offers lake access and an outdoor shower. Walks of flagstone. along with stacked rock and wood exterior walls, blend well with the natural landscape, designed by Kathy and Tut Touchstone and installed by Alexander City’s Hilltop Landscaping.
A large, storage space under the screened porch houses lake toys and outdoor furniture when not in use. Under the living room deck. Bryant and her team created a shady gathering space with hammocks and a porch swing. Rain chains channel water from the metal roof into a rock-lined creek bed that surrounds the house. The run-off empties into a rain garden that filters the water into the ground, reducing shore erosion and protecting the lake from silt accumulation. Native plants and shrubs make up a landscape design with a decidedly natural rule but also offer practical, environmentally deliberate alternatives to conventional living.
For example, wooden walkways and stairs are made from spaced slats, which help to keep the outside outside, instead of bringing it in on the bottoms of shoes. “We shielded the outside lights, too, so we can see the stars at night but also for minimal disturbance to nocturnal wildlife; Bryant said. “We used cedar and other materials that are naturally rot-resistant, instead of treated lumber, so we have less contaminated run-off.”
The home’s tin roof plays with the sound of rain but also provides more environmentally clean drainage, Bryant said. “Our goal was to have a nice landscape, but minimize the distinction between our lot and the woods, she explained. That was accomplished, she said, with the help of their contractor, Mike Kane of Kane Building LLC.
“So often, as a green architect, I see two points of view. It’s about being green, or it’s about making the house look good. Mike has that rare perspective that incorporates both views,” Bryant said. It’s that perspective, exceptional design and family tradition that will continue to connect future generations of the Dunn clan to the outside at Lake Martin.