by Chris Delano

This published article is about the design process for a waterfront cottage renovation on Mousam Lake in southern Maine.  It appeared in a print-only New England periodical called, Place…In the Making.


After an hour of driving, I have just taken my final turn onto a narrow dirt road in the southern rural lands of Maine. It is oddly called 14th street, like it was one of a grid of streets in some more densely populated city.  Instead, it is a winding single lane, gravel road off Goose Pond Road, in Western Shapleigh that skirts along the Northwestern shore of Mousam Lake. For over a mile, the road twists away from the pavement, eventually disclosing glimpses of the sparkling blue water and small camps set randomly along the lake’s edge.The last ¼ mile of my ride, takes me away from the water and this cluster of buildings, up a narrow stretch of the road to a higher, even more remote portion of shoreland.  When the road turns back, I see the lake again, this time at a point 40’ above the lake surface.  After a few more soft turns and a brief decent, I arrive at the small plot of land I have come to see.  There is a simple yellow cottage, covered in amber pine needles, and sunken several feet below the approaching parking area. With this siting and the surrounding tall pines overhanging the single story roof, the aged structure shows a humble presence to this impressive setting.  It has been sitting here for over 40 years. The land in front of the cabin is steep right down to the water with tall pines on all sides of the structure, right up to the deck.  Its owners have enjoyed beautiful summers under its roof and on its deck, and presumably, swimming in the cool water. Today, however, I have been hired to bring the quality of living inside the cabin up to the experience of this beautiful place.


“The place needs a guest room, a larger kitchen and living room for entertaining, a shower that is contained within the bathroom rather than the bedroom closet. I want a low maintenance structure that I can visit year round, that will allow me more enjoyment of the lake.  The cottage will still be a vacation home, but I’d like it to be more comfortable, insulated against the cold, and heated to keep the pipes from freezing. 

Shoreland Zoning in Maine says that when you are within 100’ from a lake, you can only expand an existing structure by 30% of the area and volume of the structure, by adding to the side, over top, or behind the existing building.  With those considerations on the table, and a grand view down the length of Mousam Lake, 30’ above its surface, I begin to sketch out thoughts of “what if” and ponder each one for its strengths and weakness’.


STYLE.  Buildings, like people, are influenced by their location. Building style is the response to climate, building techniques, available and economical materials, and trade conventions.  The result is structures that share similar forms, and, therefore become recognizable to a particular region. Once that trend is set into motion, the people develop a fondness for that form which helps to perpetuate the style of building into the future.  This kind of regionalism continues as the default design solution with a narrow field of variations, until unique local conditions or outside forces of construction techniques, design rationale, or trade skills alter their course. The unique situation for this project was the steep site, the existing cabin, the incredible view to the water, and the client who was flexible to sidestepping regional trends.With this in mind, for this project, where the budget was small, adopting stylistic and material conventions where appropriate would help hold down the price.  Beyond this sea anchor effect of cost, however, we began the design process with a careful look into the life patterns of this lot, the desires of our client, the constraints of shoreland zoning, and the condition of the existing structure on which we are adding. The rigor of this research is important to solving design problems well, into the future. 


MOVEMENT. Like most design projects that are occupied by people, the design puzzle is about the movement onto and across the property. The motion starts from 14th Street, beginning from your car as you approach the cabin, and it continues throughout your stay as you move inside and then out again on your stroll to the lake.  This movement is specific to the place and is always in response to land features, the tracking of the sun across the property, and proximity to surrounding obstacles, and structures. Oddly enough, for me, these living spaces are the byproduct of designing for this motion–rather than the other-way-round—so understanding these pathways is a critical early step in the process.

In this single floor cabin, where the square footage is small, the transitions between places are efficient. There are no hallways or separation between spaces because there isn’t the room. Each space abuts one another.  With these constraints, we designed the plan with circulation along the edges, leaving distinct places outside of these walking aisles for furnishings and for living.  Furnishings help define these areas; as does lighting, wall material, and ceiling effects.  For example, we have carved out a cathedral area above the living room, with clerestory windows to allow natural light and ventilation to flood deeper into the floor plan.  At night, this same high ceiling is indirectly lit with a continuous strip of dimmable lights to replicate the daytime effect during the night. These adjustments to the space in section help to tune the occupant into the effects of the sun throughout the day and across the seasons.  It promotes better air-flow through the cabin when the windows are open, and the sunlight encourages a more active, and healthy lifestyle.

ACCESS AND EXIT. An important feature of camp experience where relaxation is of high priority, is to impart the ritual of separation and distance from your more scheduled work life back home.  As I began sketching on what this may look like, I diagrammed the movement from the road, then the parking area, and how one might move into the building upon arrival. A few iterations in, it became important for me to not have to circulate back through the entry door every time one strolled down to the water. It seemed this entry door should be preserved for the arrival to camp, and the exiting of camp once the period of respite had ended.  During your stay, however, it seemed important to use another door to move between the lake and the house.  This point of entry could be more casual, direct to the lake, and easily accessed from the main living spaces.   This ‘vacation’ door became even more important as the design progressed.  The door needed rain protection—as all exterior doors in Maine do—it needed a shelf to stage items on before venturing down to the water. With the steep topography of the site and the narrow property lines, this entrance also had to tie into the existing set of stairs that currently led down to the water from the basement. In order to do this from the side, we wound the stairs and landings away from the lake in order to fit the necessary number of steps to descend a full story before connecting with the existing stairs at the edge of the deck.  This additional horizontal distance allowed us to include several landings at each turn to make the path to the lake a more pleasant one.

Looking back, the project goals were quite simple.  We added 300 square feet to a 1,000 square foot cabin.  In the process, we reorganized every space to take advantage of better light with higher quality views.  We layered in warm materials with clean lines, simple details, and clear circulation that hopefully, have helped my client appreciate the story that is told by this place each time he retreats from his Boston home up to the Lake– to just get away.