This lil’ cozy mountain cabin in Big Sky was built to fit just right.
Story by Melissa Mylchreest Photos by Heidi A. Long
If you ask Paul Larson whether he has a favorite room or feature in his Kalispell, Mont., cabin, he’ll tell you yes, definitely. “I love the big patio door in the living room,” he says, referencing the three-panel glass door that opens onto the wraparound porch. “And the loft bedroom,” he continues. “And the porch too, of course. And the kitchen. Oh, and the radiant floor heat!”
When a homeowner counts nearly every facet of his new cabin as among his favorite features, it’s a pretty clear indication that the cabin-building process was a success – from conception to design to execution. Paul will agree, and he’ll also be quick to point out that the success wasn’t the result of happenstance or luck; it was the product of a clear vision and good communication from the outset.
Small cabin design
“It sounds silly,” says Paul, “but I actually designed this house around specific furniture.” Although enamored by the tiny-house movement, Larson knew himself well enough to know that a true tiny house wasn’t for him. But, the basic tenets of the movement – simplicity, deliberateness of design, economy of space – spoke to him and ultimately dictated the roughly 1,000-square-foot design that he arrived at.
The decision-making process was all about tough, thoughtful choices. “I really liked the idea of being super deliberate about every choice you make,” Larson says. “Do you really need this extra space? Do I need a guest room?” “I had the stuff that I knew I needed and wanted to be in the cabin,” Larson adds, “and I didn’t want any more space than was needed to fit those pieces. It was all very practical.” Because of this, each room feels perfectly furnished – because it is. The sofa is just the right size to demarcate the line between living room and kitchen, the dining table nestles comfortably into the dining nook and an upstairs workstation hosts a desk, chair and bookshelf – no more, no less.
Room to breathe
And while small cabins can often feel cramped, such is not the case with Paul’s place.
“You get that crowding all the time with little houses,” says Jason Gerbozy, owner of J. Martin Builders, who designed and built Paul’s cabin. “Where they say, ‘well, we put in a tiny sink, because we only have room for a tiny sink. And you have to slide into the shower sideways, and don’t even think about turning around!’ This home isn’t like that at all.” While it’s true that the design is space-conscious, nothing has been compromised here; everything is full-feature, with full-sized appliances and fixtures, creating a space that is comfortable and not crowded. Large expanses of windows, high, pine-paneled ceilings, neutral colors and modern features – like metal railings and simple cabinetry – contribute to the spacious feel as well.
“I didn’t want the cliché rustic,” says Paul. “Everyone’s got the big logs, and that’s nice and all. But that’s not what I wanted. This looks like what my house would look like in Chicago, but with a little more wood.”
And it’s true. With pine trim, a reclaimed barn wood accent wall, a wood stove and a decorative stack of “firewood” providing the central structure of the staircase, there’s no doubt that if one looks out the window, they’ll be greeted not by the bluster and rush of the big city but by the forests and vistas of northwest Montana. “Out here in this part of the country,” says Gerbozy, “there’s so much to take in. So we decided it was important to build something based on Paul’s needs and ensure the lot, the views and the terrain fit those parameters.” The result was a cabin not only with windows placed to maximize the view and light but also a fabulous wraparound porch that provides additional living space and an opportunity to survey the valley below. For Paul, the cabin has proved to be the perfect retreat for him and his canine pal, Ivan, who often accompanies him on longer trips to Montana from their Midwest home.
In fact, Ivan played a role in the deliberate design considerations for the cabin, making sure that no corner went unused: The otherwise empty space under the stairs was outfitted as a built-in dog house, and quickly became Ivan’s favorite place to snooze.
Both Ivan and Paul need a good place for a good rest, given Paul’s answer to another question of favorites, this time about his favorite activities in the region. “I like to hike, of course. And I do a little mountain biking. Really, you want to get involved in everything out here. Hiking in the winter is possible, and snowshoeing, and I do a little cross-country skiing. And stand-up paddleboarding in the summer. And I have a kayak … .” Clearly, the opportunities to be out adventuring are endless. All one really needs at the end of the day is a cozy, comfortable, perfectly designed place to come home to. [gallery columns="4" ids="64029,64030,64026,64021"]
Built: 2015 Location: Kalispell, Mont. Square footage: 1,000 Bedrooms: 1 Baths: 1
Living Large in a Small Cabin
Houses with a small footprint can often feel even smaller than they are, based on the choices the homeowner or designer makes: Under-sizing features like doors and fixtures can sometimes highlight the cramped nature of the space, rather than mask it. So how to overcome this problem? It’s all a matter of camouflage, according to builder Jason Gerbozy. For instance, a storage space in the second floor loft required a door – but the space couldn’t accommodate a full-sized door, and a truncated one would have looked awkward. Instead, Jason’s builders devised a bookcase door instead, which appears to be a normal shelf but also provides access to the storage space behind.
Hiring the Right Builder
When Paul first started mulling over the idea of building a cabin, he asked friends who had built homes for advice. The one thing he heard from all of them? “Expect to pay twice what your builder quotes you.” Now, having been through the design-build process, Paul has an answer to them: “You had the wrong builder.” Jason Gerbozy, owner of J. Martin Builders and the designer/builder of Paul’s cabin, is, not surprisingly, inclined to agree. “That’s the horror story you often hear: A client gets the bill, and that’s the first time they’re hearing of half the stuff on there.” Instead, Gerbozy said, a lot of that heartache and shock can be ameliorated or eliminated by good communication early on in the design process. “We tell clients, we’re not trying to earn your business with a low-ball price. What we are going to do is be realistic and set appropriate values, while you still have control. That’s the right time to do that, and then we can work with the client to make whatever changes. Once they’re paying the bill, it’s too late.” Gerbozy appreciated that Paul came to the design process with a very clear vision of what he wanted. “Paul is specific and helpful, and it’s fun to work with someone who knows exactly what they want.” To that Paul adds the importance of extensive brainstorming and research early on in the process, so a homeowner is equipped to articulate what he/she wants. “A lot of my preferences were things that I had seen elsewhere. My fear was that I’d build it, and then see something somewhere else and think ‘oh, crap, why didn’t I think of that?’ So I did a ton of research, and it was fun to discover what’s out there.
Flathead Valley, Montana
When Paul Larson was contemplating building a cabin, there was one geographic consideration that featured prominently in his mind. He knew he wanted to live in the mountains. After looking at potential spots in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Idaho, he wound up back in northwestern Montana, a state he first visited at the age of six. “I really like the broad variety in this area,” he says, referencing both the landscape and the culture. The area plays host to ample opportunities to be in and on water, including Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. Numerous rivers and creeks wend their way through the mountains that drew Paul in the first place. A relatively benevolent climate supports both summer and winter recreation, including world-class skiing. And a patchwork of landownership provides access to wild places – including Glacier National Park and a variety of wilderness areas. “The Flathead Valley is really unique. You’ve got Kalispell, which is big enough to have all the stuff you need, but it’s still kind of a cool little town. You’ve got the ski town of Whitefish, and then small tourist towns like Bigfork. And you’ve got plenty of locals mixing with people from all over the country.” Melissa Mylchreest is a writer based in western Montana, where she spends as much time as possible outdoors with her two-legged and four-legged friends.