Shannon and Michelle Pieper were enchanted by Lake Superior’s crashing waves and vast oceanlike beauty. The outdoorsy couple had both graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth, where they met, and they loved to hike Duluth-area trails, hang out at Park Point beach and drive up the North Shore.
“Lake Superior and its immensity has always been a magnet for us,” said Shannon. So after they married in 1990, they hoped to build a year-round retreat close to Superior someday. “We started dreaming and driving around, looking at lots,” he said.
After the couple enlisted a real estate agent’s help, they explored properties that were empty or held cabins — without finding a good fit. “One had burnt to the ground and was just a shell,” said Michelle.
But the 2008 housing meltdown and subsequent recession got their hopes up. “Maybe now we could afford a cabin on the lake,” said Shannon.
As they headed back to the Twin Cities from Duluth one day, they spied a For Sale sign promoting “Lakeview Lots.”
They drove along a narrow road carved between rock outcroppings that wound up a steep hill to a development of 10 tiny lots. They were thrilled to discover that the description was accurate. “We could see Lake Superior and Palisade Head through beautiful red pine trees,” said Shannon.
The Piepers bought the best lot, and put their dream on hold while they saved money. But what type of Lake Superior getaway did they want to build? It became crystal clear after they saw photos of SALA architect Kelly Davis’ home in the book “The Not So Big House” by Sarah Susanka.
Davis’ 800-square-foot passive solar residence was tucked into a hillside in Somerset, Wis. Shannon and Michelle admired its “right-sized” spaces, simple design, quality materials and Frank Lloyd Wright vibe.
“It was a small jewel of a house,” said Shannon.
“Everything about Kelly’s house spoke to us,” added Michelle. They could envision a version of Davis’ design on their little plot of land above Lake Superior.
Michelle took a chance and called the SALA office, but “I never thought they would be able to squeeze in a project as small as ours,” she said.
After the Piepers met with SALA architects Tim Old and Davis, the four of them headed to Lake Superior’s Crystal Bay (60 miles north of Duluth) to explore and walk their ⅛ acre.
“It’s a site that reveals itself slowly,” recalled Old. “But when it opens to the lake, it’s very compelling.”
The Pieper cabin is tucked between two large rock outcroppings and perched on the edge of a ridge with Lake Superior dramatically looming beyond.
The dwelling was designed to embrace the same qualities as the site, said Davis. “Sheltering yet exposed, and both intimate and expansive.”
The odd, trapezoid-shaped lot drove the long rectangular floor plan, which is only as wide as one room, in order to “draw light into every room, and all can participate in the view,” said Old.
The cabin is a single story, but a 16-foot-long clerestory window projects out of the roof on the lake side to pull in light from the top, said Old.
On the entry side, a steeply sloped asymmetrical roofline protects the home from the elements, enhances privacy and provides shelter. Davis compared it to a little glass box that glows like a lantern at night.
“It’s nestled on the lot in a way that feels protected and quiet,” said Shannon. “And like it has always been there.”
The Piepers requested a compact retreat, which maximizes the lake and landscape, and the architects delivered. “The home has an extremely powerful presence for its small size,” said Davis.
The 1,100-square-foot space includes two bedrooms and one bathroom and efficiently uses every inch, thanks to strategic design and quality materials.
The Piepers call the cabin’s style “Scandinasian,” with clean lines, warm minimalism and “a combination of Frank Lloyd Wright and Asian influences,” said Shannon. “It’s subtle, quiet and everything fits together so well.”
After stepping inside the front door, you’re greeted by an unobstructed long view stretching out to the “bird walk,” spruce and pine trees and Lake Superior beyond.
The vaulted living/dining/kitchen area is shaped by glass walls framing outdoor vistas. In the kitchen, Old fabricated an open slot along the wall that spans to the back bedroom as a way “to make space and light travel through the cabin in a surprising way,” he said.
The comfortable living room is hyyge heaven due to the Danish Rais wood-burning stove and heated polished concrete floors. It’s furnished with space-saving Douglas fir built-ins — from the living room sectional to the desk in the study.
The streamlined galley-style kitchen has plenty of prep space, with a two-tier island topped with black granite and Douglas fir cabinets for storage. The dining table slides in and out from the island to create more seating space if needed. For warmth, the polished concrete transitions into a walnut floor. A simple light-box valance illuminates kitchen work space.
Down the hall, the best feature of the cabin’s single bathroom is the expanse of glass above the sink. “We can watch the lake even when we’re brushing our teeth,” said Shannon.
Since the bathroom has only a tub, he missed taking showers, so they built an outdoor rendition off the side deck, enclosed by a half-wall. “It’s fantastic to take a steaming shower and look at moss on the outcropping,” he said.
Earthy materials, including honey-hued Douglas fir, concrete, granite, ipe, glass and steel, are integrated for a cohesive flow. “The way it feels is amazing and magical,” said Michelle.
The Pieper cabin boasts various sitting areas and vantage points to gaze at the lake and woods, blurring the lines between inside and out.
But the highlight is the 32-foot-long “bird walk” composed of ipe and steel-cable railing. It’s cantilevered over a deep ravine, creating the feeling of floating over the landscape and delivering dramatic lake views. The Piepers first fell in love with the bird walk on Davis’ home, which was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s version at Taliesin III in Wisconsin.
“You feel close to the water, and can watch the weather rumbling from across the lake,” said Michelle.
The cabin’s smart green features include a sustainable long-lasting metal roof and passive solar deep overhangs, which shade the cabin in the summer and allow sunlight in the winter. And the dwelling is super-energy-efficient, due to in-floor heat, spray-foam insulation and its compact size.
To save on some of the building costs, Michelle and Shannon spent a couple of weekends staining the exterior cedar a grayish-green color, mimicking the tree bark, to better recede into the wooded surroundings.
Although there were many delays, due to the lot being a difficult site to build on, that gave the Piepers time to tweak details and save money for features they had initially cut.
After breaking ground in 2012, the cabin was finally completed in 2015, and worth the wait.
“We call it our gem,” said Michelle. “It’s small — but precious.”