Designing the dream retreat

Over the years, we’ve designed many spaces to help our clients — or their customers — relax and unwind. At Shelter, we approach design holistically, and in this, we consider how spaces can enhance our overall well-being. Having a dedicated place to retreat from everyday life and reconnect with nature is one powerful way to improve wellness through design. Below are a few considerations to mull over, potentially with the help of a design team, when thinking about creating your custom dream retreat.


Identifying your ideal retreat

Raw land

One long term investment option is to purchase a piece of raw land for future development into a retreat space. This is an attractive route for clients who like the idea of “off the grid living”, or who may not be ready to build yet. Securing property in an area you’re interested in can offer peace of mind and requires less maintenance while planning for and designing the perfect retreat space. The value of the land may even increase over time depending on the location. A drawback of this approach is that the property may lack basic utilities including a driveway, well, septic, and electric – all things to be considered in the scope and cost of the eventual design.

Other design considerations:

  • Zoning: City and county laws and regulations
  • Can you get a variance for an outbuilding?
  • Planning for utilities: Well, wifi, power, etc.
  • Topography/landscape
  • Site orientation: Relationship to sun and water, seasonality and access during winter


Another approach is to build, renovate, or remodel a cabin. Cabins are typically thought to be more rustic with a focus on unplugging and reconnecting with nature. These properties may lack certain amenities that full time homes offer such as wifi or a dishwasher. Cabins tend to also have a smaller overall footprint compared to a primary home. Rooms are usually more flexible to accommodate a variety of guests and occasions.

Other design considerations:

  • Seasonal space, often not conditioned space: Can lack insulation or air tight windows, which can be costly to replace
  • Generational cabins may be decades old
  • Larger focus on “hygge
  • Flexibility of space: Dual-use space to accommodate family and friends, emphasis on outdoor living and recreation

Waterfront home

An alternative to the more rustic raw land and cabin options is a waterfront home. These are second homes away from “daily life”, and often include all the amenities of a full-time residence. The design of these homes often revolves around a client’s specific lifestyle and priorities. This might include spending time outside or just relaxing with friends and family.

Other design considerations:

  • Patterns of living: Seasonal or year round, space to accommodate family and friends
  • Amenities: Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), additional garage/storage for boats and gear, emphasis on outdoor living space
  • Future-proof for aging in place


Distinguishing between cabins and waterfront homes

Questions to ponder:

  • Is the property currently seasonal?: Consider insulation, leaky windows, lack of sustainable heat source, insect/pest damage
  • Can the existing structure be retrofitted?: Consider the age of the building, may not be up to current code, may contain asbestos and/or lead pipes
  • What’s your end goal for the retreat?: Consider seasonality, space flexibility, water access, etc.


Seasonal cabin
  • Building structure and requirements are less stringent
  • Smaller footprint = less cost
  • No heating cost = less emphasis on efficient building envelope
  • Winterizing systems, consider freezing pipes and power outages


Waterfront home
  • Ensure the property is equipped to be retrofitted
  • Consider building envelope first
  • Could be a year round retreat
  • Site considerations for all seasons


Regardless of which retreat route you choose, designing a space dedicated to rest and relaxation requires upfront consideration of factors like timeline, location, intended use, budget, and specific wishlist items – just as with any other project. “As designers, we’re always considering the best way to incorporate client well-being into the spaces we create. Facilitating a connection to natural light and the outdoors is one of the best ways to do that. Whether its an off grid remote hut or a dream home on a lake, it’s always such a pleasure to help foster a new appreciation and connection to the land.” – Piper Donlin, Interior Designer & David Jensen, Architectural Associate

Want to talk about designing your dream retreat? Contact us, we’d love to help.


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