On the outside, Greg and Jenny Lee's weekend retreat near Pine River, Minn., looks like a fairy-tale cottage nestled among the pines.

But under the traditional gabled facade is an ultra-efficient, Earth-friendly green structure that was strategically placed on the lake lot to save trees and retain the natural shoreline.

The home has an ICF (insulated concrete form) foundation and geothermal heating, and its roof is made of long-lasting recycled tire shakes.

When you step inside, ceilings and walls of amber-hued reclaimed Douglas fir give it the feel of a rustic North Woods cabin. To conserve water, the bathrooms and kitchen are outfitted with low-flow plumbing fixtures, and rooms are illuminated with compact fluorescent bulbs. The home's showpiece is a Finnish soapstone wood stove chosen for its Old World charm as well as its ability to provide an alternative heat source.

"I wanted to prove you could take a timeless whimsical design and use leading-edge environmental building techniques," Greg Lee said.

Old meets new

Greg and Jenny's green-themed vacation home is much different from the family cabins they loved to go to when they were kids.

After the Lees bought 5 acres of heavily wooded land on a small, pristine lake in 2005, they shared their ideas with architect Meghan Kell Cornell, who then was working for SALA Architects in Stillwater.

Greg Lee, a Minneapolis stay-at-home dad, is passionate about residential architecture and spent a winter researching home styles and sustainable building materials. He collaborated with the SALA design team and played an integral role from beginning to end.

"I wanted it to feel like a timeless European cottage," he said. "It would have big, heavy beams and a stone base so it felt anchored."

But he also wanted to integrate contemporary qualities, such as an expanse of windows that offer a 180-degree view of the woods and lake.

"The challenge was to design an eco-friendly cabin that looks like it had been on the land for 100 years," Cornell said.

Size was another consideration. The Lees needed enough sleeping and gathering space for weekend guests as well as their family of four. "But we wanted to make it just the right size so that when you drive up, you're not intimidated by a monster-size home," Lee said.

Cornell's design of the three-level, 2,500-square-foot home is based on a compact 940-square-foot foundation. The exposed timber-frame main level encompasses the kitchen, dining room and a south-facing living room.

"We mixed patterns of horizontal and vertical Douglas fir paneling to break down the proportions of the open room for a more cozy feeling," Cornell said.

She placed 6-foot-tall double-hung windows in the dining room to bring the outdoors in. Wood built-ins, such as a dining bench and reading nook, maximize every inch of space.

"Half of the main floor is designated for eating and cooking," Lee joked, referring to the spacious butternut-cabinet kitchen with heated slate floors. A patina metal backsplash above the farmhouse sink is "a subtle, fun, contemporary accent," he said.

The second level, which is a half-story, holds three bedrooms built inside a lakeside dormer.

"We wanted it built up to the rafters," Lee said. "It gives you economy of space and fun angles."

In the lower level's guest quarters are two bedrooms, a bathroom and sitting area.

Cornell didn't want to expand the home's compact footprint, so she placed a large four-sided screen house about 20 feet away from it. A fieldstone terrace surrounded by a stone sitting wall connects the two.

"It gets people to go outside and doesn't block the light like an attached screen porch can," Lee said.

Cornell's plan does include old-fashioned open porches with timber columns and stone slab steps on both the entry and lake side of the home. "That's where we watch the sunsets through the trees," Lee said.

The Lees' North Woods getaway incorporates the latest green construction technology, from spray foam insulation to a geothermal heating system, but its purpose is timeless.

"We want our friends and family to gather there and go fishing and canoeing in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter," Lee said. "We have no TV reception or Wi-Fi."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619