“Roughing It”

By Beth Landahl and Steven Dwyer
Photos by Paul Crosby Photography

Nestled into a hillside in Whitetail Woods Regional Park, a new park within the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, are three new camper cabins in a pine forest. Throughout the Midwest’s state and regional parks, camper cabins are a highly sought-after amenity. Park enthusiasts and campers who like sleeping overnight in a secure, solid structure, yet are willing to bring along their own essentials (linens, water, cooking stove), find these cabins perfect for “roughing it.”

Among the camper-cabin, jet-setting crowd, seeking out new parks and new experiences is paramount. This is why, in part, the new cabins are wildly popular. In creating the first three structures on 450 wooded acres (the first phase of a long-term master plan), Dakota County Parks Department set out to design and construct cabins that would offer something completely unique.

As a result, every time we have new guests, or tour a group through the cabins, we’re thrilled to watch the guests’ jaws drop and hear another “Wow!” Here are seven strategies that were used to put the “wow” into Whitetail Woods Regional Park’s camper-cabin project.

1. A Strong Vision + Community Input = Master Planning
Two years before the design of the cabins, Dakota County Parks created a master plan for the park. The process included comprehensive community engagement. We solicited feedback from the public about what it wanted to see, do, and experience. We discovered park visitors wanted accessible cabins with electricity available year-round. In addition, park professionals wanted to create and champion singular amenities that would attract the community and new visitors; their vision included camper cabins with “distinctive architecture” that offered a “tree-house”-like experience.

After the master plan was complete, HGA Architects and Engineers (HGA) was hired. Community and stakeholder input, however, continued. The design process included working with the primary client—the county parks department—as well as the board of county commissioners, the general public, and park maintenance, management, and service personnel. Through a public visioning session and approximately six meetings and presentations, we remained keenly aware of our audience and worked diligently to balance input from the different constituents and stakeholders. Eventually, the cabins’ concept, cost, size, and placement were defined as HGA thoughtfully gave form to our vision and the public’s input to create elevated cabins with a modernist design in the woods.

2. Leadership Occurs Through Visionary Planning
Because of Whitetail Woods Regional Park’s clear vision for the site and cabin design, the public input that informed the project, and the research we conducted into camper cabins around the United States, the Dakota County Board of Commissioners (the final decision-makers) enthusiastically supported the project.

Buy-in and support from leadership is invaluable to fully realizing a singular vision. To continually earn that buy-in and support, we provided the commissioners with updates about the project’s process. This allowed leadership to enjoy a level of confidence in supporting the project. Conversely, the board was thrilled to demonstrate its leadership with such a grounded, clear vision.

3. Think Outside The Box
Whitetail Woods and Dakota County Parks presented HGA with a master plan that included a strong vision, a collection of images, and descriptive language in defining cabins that were “tree-houses” with “distinctive architecture” set in a beautiful, immersive landscape. The cabins were to be sited on 450 pristine wooded acres. HGA proposed the inverse: elevated houses in the trees. The cabins were also positioned close together to maximize use of restrooms, a bathhouse, parking, and other common spaces, and to open up sites for future cabins. In addition, HGA designed a “distinctive architecture” that uses a simple, elegant, modern vocabulary—a first in the design of camper cabins.

4. Know The Visitor
In addition to having a clear vision for the cabins, the park also created a program with input from the community—the cabins’ future visitors. The cabins needed to be ADA-accessible, with on-grade access. They were to be available year-round, so the cabins required heat and electricity. The cabins were to be sited in close proximity to the bathhouse with restrooms and potable water. Materials and construction had to survive the hammer test to ensure durability. Singles, couples, families, and groups of up to six people should be able to enjoy the cabins. Lastly, the cabins had to be located in an inticing natural environment to provide visitors with an unforgettable experience.

5. Design To The Program
HGA fulfilled these program elements with a clear, modern design and a simple materials palette. The 307-square-foot cabins are elevated 14 feet above the ground for the ultimate house-in-the-trees experience. Each cabin has an accessible bridge leading from the access trail to the cabin. The bridge also creates the feeling of crossing into something detached, something different from day-to-day life. In each cabin, the window-wall at the deck, along with the recessed 80-square-foot deck itself, frame views into the cedar forest.

In addition, the cabins were designed to leave a light environmental footprint on the land. Because each cabin is situated in the cool and solar-sheltered woods, we eliminated the need for air conditioning; each cabin has natural ventilation via operable windows and a ceiling fan. Because every cabin is well insulated, a single high-efficiency electric heater suffices during the winter months.

Sustainably harvested wood was used for the structure. Wood also has one of the lowest embodied-energy factors available.

To blend in with the natural environment, the cabins were constructed with a Western Red Cedar glu-lam chassis, cedar and pine framing, and Red Cedar cladding. Dark cedar shingles, with a texture mimicking Cedar bark, help the cabins blend in with the pine forest, providing campers with an enveloping experience. Standing-seam metal roofs were chosen for durability, as were maple floors inside the cabins. Built-in entry/bunk nooks, a table and folding chairs tucked into casework, and foldout couches are among the cabin-appropriate furnishings. Non-petroleum-based finishes were used inside and out.

6. Measure Success
The camper cabins were completed in a year and a half, with each cabin costing approximately $90,000. For this first phase of the master plan, the cabins were constructed elsewhere and then moved to the site. Throughout the design and construction processes, we constantly looked at ways to move forward with other phases in more economical ways. As with the first three camper cabins, we’ll encourage client engagement, community input, and visitor feedback to ensure all stakeholders who support the project that the vision remains sound and practical, and that future phases are also executed on time and on budget.

7. Share The Knowledge
The buzz among camper-cabin enthusiasts is, “Yeah, but have you tried the cabins at Whitetail Woods? They’re stunning.” Needless to say, the cabins are booked months in advance. Moreover, park representatives across the country visit Whitetail Woods to tour and experience the structures, to learn how we designed and constructed them, and to see our vision reach fruition. More than style, the camper cabins are about longevity, sustainability, and providing visitors with an unforgettable experience. We predict people will still be clamoring to stay in the cabins 50 years from now.

A Sustainable Park Offering
While we focused on sustainable strategies in the design and construction of the cabins, sustainability was integrated into the entire project—primarily through civil engineering. For example, engineering expertise and tools (e.g., transportation software) were used to support low-impact design solutions. Sustainable expertise in finding design solutions helped us refine Dakota County’s customized set of Low Impact Development Standards to meet the project’s goals.

While those goals included creating low-impact cabins that incorporated a variety of sustainable strategies, designing durable, appealing cabins that would continue to appeal to “campers” over the long-term was also important. And they will. Three minutes after reservations opened for the cabins, they were booked six months out. ArchDaily.com named the project one of the “Top 100 Most Important Works of American Architecture.” Construction is planned for the next series of three cabins. Clearly, the cabins are about much more than their distinctive modern style; they’re about how thoughtful, contextual and sustainable design can provide “campers” with an immersive, natural and unforgettable experience.

Beth Landahl is the Visitor Services Manager for Dakota County Parks. Reach her at beth.landahl@co.dakota.mn.us.

Steven Dwyer, AIA, is a Project Designer with HGA Architects and Engineers in Minneapolis, Minn. Reach him at sdwyer@hga.com.