A gem in the woods

Forest cabin: 512 square feet

When Montana architect Jeff Shelden and his portrait photographer wife, Lois, decided to build a weekend cabin on an isolated site above a forested valley near Lewistown, they made space efficiency, ecofriendly design, and Western romance key elements. The result is a 512-square-foot house, powered by two 50-watt photovoltaic panels, that rises in the shape of a Forest Service fire lookout.

The Sheldens wanted a compact, light-filled structure appropriate to its wilderness setting. Jeff's father had been a Montana forester, so the fire towers that guard the great Western forests held allure: "They were places where life and relationships were condensed to their essential elements," Jeff says.

 
The simple square, stone-and-wood tower sleeps four: two in the ground floor room, which also houses the kitchen and dining area, and two in the glass-enclosed living area on the second floor. A storage compartment for futons and bed linens is built into the upstairs floor. A 6-foot-square pyramid-shaped skylight at the roof peak brings in additional light, and a wrap-around balcony provides extra living space in good weather. A composting toilet provides sanitation.

The Sheldens wanted the cabin "to look like 1939, like the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) had built it." To achieve the patina of age, they used recycled materials - for the roof, corrugated metal siding came from a demolished local barn, and beams, flooring, and decking were taken from a recently dismantled 80-year-old trestle.

The approach is from below. If you arrive at dusk, the tower quite suddenly appears through a line of fir trees. Light spills across the balcony and bounces off the overhang, beckoning you upward to safety and warmth.

Design: Prairie Wind Architecture, Lewistown, MT (406/538-2201)