What Family Handyman learned building a cabin in Wisconsin Northwoods
For anyone who has built a house or worked on a home improvement project, especially in the past year, “fun” usually doesn’t come to mind.
But that’s how Nick Grzechowiak described building a cabin in the Northwoods of Wisconsin this summer.
“It was the better part of a summer, but it was pretty enjoyable,” he said. “The idea of being able to build something that we designed on a beautiful 15 acre lot in northwestern Wisconsin … it sure is better than sitting in a cabin.”
Grzechowiak is the Chief Content Officer of Family Handyman, a magazine that celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2020 and this year built a house called Getaway outside of Weyerhaeuser in the Rusk district.
He said the team got the idea after fixing a vintage camper last year.
“What we learned is that the people in our audience and in general really fantasize about this place in the forest, the place where you can switch off, where you can meet up with friends and family again. … Our audience is very likely to buy or build a vacation home, ”and that number has increased over the past year, he said.
It’s not just his audience. According to the National Association of Realtors, vacation home sales grew 16.3% year over year in 2020. The increase continued this year, with sales up nearly 30% in northern Wisconsin through May.
To capitalize on this trend, Family Handyman’s editorial team – including a member who received a contractor license – set about building an escape in Northwoods with the help of other local contractors. They aimed to build a home that the average reader could build, not some kind of “dream home” that you see on TV or other magazines, and share what they have learned in the process.
“Our goal was to build something that was realistic and accessible, but really matched the trends that we see out there,” said Grzechowiak.
The idea came at the perfect time because people wanted not only to build or buy second homes, but also to have shutters in their homes and suddenly they saw all the possibilities to fix and improve them but maybe didn’t know how.
“I think it was a bit of a lost art of home improvement,” Grzechowiak said, noting that some home improvement skills that may have been passed down from parents to children in the past are not passed down today. But the pandemic brought with it a “renaissance” in interest in some of these “ancestral” skills, from DIY to knitting and cooking.
And while there is a wealth of information on all of this on the internet, he sees Family Handyman as a trustworthy resource to learn things related to home building, especially now that they did it themselves.
Grzechowiak said the magazine’s website saw record traffic, including a record number of female readers, during the pandemic. Interest in outdoor living has risen sharply as people looked for ways to expand their living spaces, he said.
Lessons from building
Building a house in northern Wisconsin in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t just “pleasant”.
The weather – and weather-related regulations – was one of the biggest hurdles the team faced.
“One of the things I learned, no matter how much I wanted to, is that I can’t control the weather,” Grzechowiak said, noting that they lost work days to spring storms that turned the site into a mud pit.
The winter weather presented another challenge. Initially, the team planned to do without a basement and to pour a concrete slab for the foundation. But Wisconsin building codes require homes to have foundations deeper than the “frost penetration level,” 4 feet underground. Since they had already dug 4 feet deep and poured concrete, they decided to go 8 feet and yet add a basement. While they left it unfinished, the area doubled the square footage of the house and provided room for future growth.
“I think the need for some versatility in a holiday home is important,” said Grzechowiak. Unlike primary homes, which people often outgrow, sell, and move away from, vacation homes – especially cottages in northern Wisconsin – can stay in a family longer and even be passed on to future generations, which serve many changing purposes over the years.
“There is something special about a place in the Northwoods where it almost becomes this legacy of memories,” he said. “There is something almost sacred about the hut or the north.”
But before they could even pour the basement and start building those memories, they found out about a little thing called a ban on roads.
Officially known as seasonal weight restrictions, the prohibitions put weight restrictions on certain roads during the spring frost and thaw periods. The getaway happened to be at the end of one of those streets. While the team had hoped to start construction on April 1, they had to wait for the ban to be lifted before they could start later in April.
As for working with contractors and suppliers after they started construction, Grzechowiak said that while material availability was one of their biggest problems, they knew they were going to start and had prepared for it.
“We learned that it is really important to have relationships with material suppliers, especially in this part of the world,” where there may be only one supplier, he said. He found that part of this relationship involved the manner of communication, with suppliers preferring to communicate via SMS rather than phone calls or email.
Above all, preparation is key to any construction project, he said.
“Cover every base you can and don’t rush anything,” he said. “It’s really important to forge those relationships and let the plan work out.”
While the Getaway isn’t a huge HGTV dream home – it’s 1,000 square feet – it’s not your typical centuries-old Northwoods log home either.
High ceilings and lots of windows make it look bigger than it is, even in small bedrooms. A covered terrace with a ceiling fan and built-in lights is connected to the house via a glass garage door.
“We thought about it, if Family Handyman was going to come up with an escape cabin, what would they all want? For me it was this idea of an outdoor-indoor space that became one, ”said Grzechowiak. “The idea of going into the forest, but also wanting to be comfortable.”
They also thought that for a vacation home, people don’t want to wait all the time when they are visiting. So instead of wood cladding and roofs, they used steel. They saved money by buying windows and doors at auctions and thrift stores.
The location of the house – far from landscaping and hardware stores – also dictated some design decisions. Instead of driving back and forth for an hour to get mulch, an editor came up with the idea of mulching fallen trees that they had on the property. They also used wood from the property to create a path of circular stepping blocks down to the lake. Boulders excavated during the pouring of the basement went into other landscape elements.
“I loved the idea of this natural forest landscaping” with no poured concrete and colored mulch, said Grzechowiak.
While the location of the house posed a challenge in some ways – road bans, material availability – it also offered some advantages.
Grzechowiak said the best place for a cabin is to exit a two-hour bubble from large metropolitan areas. Not only is it far enough to feel like a real getaway, but it also lowers the prices of some materials and services. One of the reasons they decided to build in Weyerhaeuser is because it was outside that bubble, about 2 hours and 15 minutes northeast of Minneapolis.
“In my opinion, there is some kind of cute bag in northwestern Wisconsin that is really accessible but far enough away to bring prices down,” he said.
The team completed the house in July, in time for publication in the September issue of the magazine (available in mid-August). They also documented much of the process with accompanying how-to articles and videos on their website (familyhandyman.com/article/the-getaway).
What’s next with the getaway? It will remain in the Family Handyman family for the time being. Grzechowiak said they hope to use it for more magazine articles in the future, including hosting a vacation.
Contact Chelsey Lewis at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and on Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.