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Room to Grow: How to Add a Cabin Addition

Additions to a cabin can multiply the fun for the entire family by providing everyone with a space of their own.

Written by Janice Brewster


When your cabin starts to look a bit more dated than delightful, or when friends and family are packed in like sardines on weekend visits, you may begin thinking about renovating or adding on.

 “Often there is a tipping point where an owner wants to put on an addition,” says architect Travis Kinney of Gulfshore Design in Maine. That tipping point might come when owners want more modern conveniences than those found in the kitchen granddad installed. “Or they have decided the family is getting bigger, and they need a bit more space, or they find that they want to use the cabin year round instead of just seasonally,” Kinney says.

Chase Morrill, a contractor who stars in DIY Network’s “Maine Cabin Masters,” agrees: “Most people who contact us to work on their camps are looking to try and save their existing camp but need to make it more functional to meet their specific needs,” he says.

As with any major project, it’s best to go in with your eyes wide open and a clear understanding of your goals.

Can you build a cabin addition?

Deliberating over a cabin addition may be a moot point if circumstances don’t allow it. If your cabin is on the waterfront, there may be restrictions on how close new construction can be to the shore. Your current septic system may not allow for a larger cabin, or setback requirements on your site may limit the footprint for your cabin.

Talk to your local building department before your make plans. Some people will choose to purchase an existing cabin to take advantage of grandfathered setbacks, Kinney explains. “Many owners who want to be right on the water end up buying an older camp that may not have been upgraded,” he says. “I am often hired to make improvements to the existing cabin while at the same time adding an addition because it makes sense to combine the work.”

See also A Log Cabin Gets an Invisible Addition

But should you?

Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should. Talk the construction project over with your family and consider your options. Would the project cut too much into your vacation time? Does the cabin warrant an addition, or would it be better to buy a larger cabin? Could adding an outbuilding on the site address some of your needs?

Sometimes, the inadequacies are obvious: The old cabin is everyone’s favorite place – except that the kitchen is not functional, an extra bathroom is needed or there’s no space for everyone to eat together. If you’re retiring to the cabin, an attached garage, mudroom and dedicated laundry area could be on your “must have” list.

For some owners, a cabin is a connection to the past and is worth preserving. “By saving the cabin and building with quality materials you are saving a small piece of history that cannot be replaced once it is gone,” Morrill says, especially in his area of New England. “Reusing and repurposing is a big part of Yankee ingenuity.” 

You’ll know when you’re ready to make the move, but before you press the “go” button, you should also address a major concern: money.

A realistic vision

How much can you spend on an addition? If you’re borrowing money, it’s a discussion to have with a loan officer. If you’d need a loan, you should settle on a figure that’s comfortable, keeping all of your other expenses in mind. Try to clearly define your budget and share it with your architect, designer or builder. These pros should be able to help you get the most for your money and steer you away from overspending.

Come to a consensus on what you’d like to accomplish with the addition. To get a sense of what’s possible, visit home shows, scour magazines and online sources and even ask to see other people’s cabins. Draw up a list of “dream” items and “must haves” for the addition, then hire a designer, architect
or builder to help you hone your ideas. “It’s always best to consult with a local architect prior to proceeding with a project,” says Amy Nowak-Palmerini, an architect with Roam Design in Congers, N.Y.

See also Adding a Pergola to a Cabin Deck

“I will sit down with a client and review what they want and determine how best to tackle the existing cabin,” Kinney says. “It may be that the original cabin should just be converted to a larger family room and all the new aspects of the work installed in the addition.”

Another tactic might be to reconfigure your cabin’s existing outdoor spaces. The advantage there, Nowak-Palmerini explains, is that you already know the advantages and disadvantages of those spaces. “For example, does the outdoor area already relate well to the interior spaces it supports? Does it get full sun or take advantage of any views? Is it too big or too small for how the space is used?” Consider these spaces carefully, she says, but keep in mind that simply enclosing that type of area may not be feasible for the conversion to happen.

“In many instances, little of the existing construction, if any, can be salvaged for a conversion,” Nowak-Palmerini says. Structural issues can arise, like foundations that aren’t suitable for finished spaces, lightly framed walls that don’t allow for the current standard insulation or roofing structures that aren’t up to snuff.  

Zoning issues can arise, too. “Enclosing a space might push a homeowner over the square footage that is allowed on the lot,” Nowak-Palmerini says. Variances can be requested, but they require time and are not always granted. “Homeowners need to research and address these issues on a location-to-location basis,” she says.
 

Beware of the creep

Anyone who’s remodeled part of a home knows that the new finishes can make the older sections look dreary by comparison. You may want to leave room in your budget for at least cosmetic upgrades to existing parts of the cabin, such as new furnishings, flooring or fresh paint.

Adding more living space on to your cabin may also affect utilitarian issues like heating and cooling, Nowak-Palmerini advises. Will the existing furnace or air conditioning equipment be able to handle the load of more square footage?

“When additions are added, we often inspect the utilities and assess if they need upgrading,” Kinney says. “We’ll often bury the electric line to the cabin, install a new leach field if the existing doesn’t pass inspection and may drill a well if they were previously drawing water off the lake.”

To make your addition blend with the rest of the cabin, you might consider replacing roofing or windows in the old section to match the new, painting or staining exteriors, or reworking landscaping. All of these overall upgrades should be given as much forethought as possible to avoid cost overruns and disappointing results at the end of the project.  

See also Heating and Cooling Your Cabin