Like many Minnesotans, Ali and Debbie Awad thought it would be fun to have a cabin on a lake. So the Burnsville couple started looking at property in Wisconsin.
"We were looking for a crummy house we could fix up," said Ali, an architect and partner in Awad + Koontz Architects Builders.
Then a little 800-square-foot house popped up for sale close to home, on Crystal Lake in Burnsville. "It looked a lot like the crummy little cabins we were looking at in Wisconsin," he said.
The cabin was all that was left of an old resort.
"It was literally the last cabin on Crystal Lake," said Debbie. There was no driveway or garage and no place to put one on the petite lot. The cabin's occupants at the time were parking in their yard.
But Ali was "tantalized" by the challenge that the cabin and site presented. So they took a gamble and bought the property.
At first they hoped to expand the cabin or build on its existing foundation, but it was set less than 3 feet from the lot line.
"One of the problems with the property was that the lot was so small," said Ali. "It was considered unbuildable."
The city was open to a teardown and rebuild. But how, on such a tiny parcel?
Then the Awads discovered that the old road that ran along one side of the property extending to the lake might offer a solution.
"Since it wasn't in use as a street, we could petition the city to vacate," said Debbie. The Awads' petition was successful, and the land occupied by the street was divided between their house and the neighboring one.
"We gained 1,500 square feet of lot and 17 feet in width," said Debbie. "It all went into the size of the house," while also allowing compliance with setback requirements.
The design process took a year as Ali tried to solve the puzzle of balancing the house they wanted with the constraints of the lot.
"What was important to us was to have a strong connection to the outdoors, with lots of daylight and easy flow in and out," said Ali.
The couple had recently become empty nesters, but they still wanted three bedrooms to accommodate their young adult son and daughter.
"That was important, to have a bedroom for each kid," said Ali.
The home's footprint would be compact, by necessity, but the lot sloped down to the lake, which lent itself to a walkout lower level. By making the house three levels, Ali was able to create approximately 3,000 square feet of living space.
"Another piece of our puzzle was the amount of hardcover or impervious surface allowed, which is especially important on waterfront lots," he said. Driveways are factored into hardcover so their driveway had to be laid out by a surveyor to make sure it did not exceed the limit.
The new house is the same distance to the shore as the little cabin was, so Ali added a natural planting buffer along the shoreline and a rain garden that collects water from the home's gutters to protect the lake.
"Water quality is important to us, so we wanted to minimize any direct runoff," he said.
Walls of glass
Their previous house, which they also built, was Craftsman in style. For their new house "we decided to change style and go modern," said Debbie, who collaborated with her architect/husband on the project.
"I'm the client," said Debbie with a laugh. "We work really well together. We have similar taste."
The home's design features clean lines, open spaces, walls of glass facing the lake and low-maintenance siding of ribbed steel.
With so many big windows facing the lake, the house needed to be tight and energy-efficient, said Ali, who included Marvin windows, in-floor heat and high-velocity HVAC.
The lower level that walks out to the lake is casual with polished concrete floors, a walnut kitchenette and a bar.
The second level, with quartersawn oak floors, contains the living room, dining room and kitchen all in one open space. A built-in banquette does double duty, for dining and storage beneath.
"Having a banquette made for a lot of seating in a compact space," said Ali.
There's also a small open area in the middle of the second level to accommodate grilling.
The third level houses the owners' suite — and another room with an insulated glass garage door that opens completely to the lake. The opening also has retractable screens for keeping bugs at bay.
"It's kind of a tree fort," said Ali of the space. "We're trying to figure out what to call it." They've settled on "stuga," or Swedish for cabin.
Their home also has its own moniker. "We've named it Rockhaven," said Ali. They found that word etched into a concrete step at the original cabin.
The couple took photos of the etched step and used one to create a large "Rockhaven" canvas print that hangs in their mudroom to commemorate the little cabin.
With the help of their children, Ali and Debbie did some of the work themselves, including installing the basement slab insulation, pre-staining their cedar siding and installing the birch paneling in the stuga.
So far, they haven't been able to share their new lake home with others as much as they would like, due to the pandemic. "We like to entertain but we haven't had a chance yet," said Ali.
"We moved in Feb. 29  and two weeks later came COVID," said Debbie. "We haven't had an open house or any parties."
But life on the water has lived up to their dreams.
"It's amazing!" said Debbie, who has been working from home since the pandemic began. "I love the house, and it's fun to be on a lake — seeing all the different things that happen, the seasons. Something is always going on outside the windows. I knew I'd love it."
Ali enjoys rising before dawn and seeing people already in their fishing boats. "It's fun to see what's happening on the lake."
And having a house and cabin all in one "ended up being the perfect thing," said Debbie.
"We can get out on the lake and get away from work. It was worth the leap of faith. Everyone that walks by is amazed at what happened on this lot."