This is the first post in a series where our staff discuss their experience designing for their own families.
Over 60 years ago, my grandfather designed and built a cabin up on the Mendocino coastline. The cabin, which we refer to as the “main house,” is essentially one big open space with a kitchen and living area. We sleep in a separate tent cabin, or outside when the weather is nice, and during the day the main house becomes the basecamp for treks out into the woods or down the cliffs.
The main house is framed with 8×8 redwood posts and beams. Rough-sawn redwood panels clad the interior walls. Copper shutters shelter the tall west-facing windows, and two concrete fireplaces flank either end of the house. For decades now, my family has spent summer months and winter weekends up there. Three (going on four) generations have grown up with this house. We know all its idiosyncrasies.
No one lives at the cabin year round, so over time, the house had started to grow shabby. Each trip required a significant amount of cleaning before it could be truly habitable; it was clear something had to be done. I joined a small team of family members who were tasked with renovating the kitchen. Our objective was to make it cleaner, more comfortable, and more weather-tight, while maintaining the integrity of the space. With so many memories connected to the physical place, we had to take a particularly sensitive approach to any changes that would be done.
Over many Google-hangouts and phone calls, my uncle, aunt, dad, two cousins, older sister and I came up with a design proposal for the entire family to review. We worked with the existing materials – salvaging what we could from the original redwood paneling. The new kitchen cabinets were faced with copper panels, which a local carpenter had carefully patinaed to match the shutters. One of the biggest changes we made was one we didn’t initially anticipate: we re-finished the entire floor with large slate tiles. This change may have been the most polarizing in the family, but for me, it was the most significant improvement we could make. The cabin floor had been a crumbling slab-on-grade for decades, left unfinished even though my grandfather had originally planned to install tile. The new floor has a similar look and feel to the old concrete, but with all the imperfections smoothed out.
I’m proud to say we accomplished what we set out to do: the new space feels naturally integrated with the rest of the house, and there’s a renewed, vibrant energy within the family. That sense of excitement and accomplishment is the best outcome, because even though this project was about a cleaner kitchen, it was also about finding a process for designing and building across generations. As our family grows, we’ll need to continue making changes. The cabin is a living thing, and needs to evolve to stay alive.