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5 Space-Saving Lessons from a Compact Cabin

A young family builds a modern off-the-grid retreat by making five key accommodations

Leilani Marie Labong
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Natural Habitat

For nearly a decade, Josh Dunford spent weekends camping on his undeveloped 5-acre plot on Valdes Island, one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. Then in 2014, when the cofounder of Vancouver design studio Burnkit married Anne Casselman, a science journalist, the couple traded in the tent for something much more permanent--this 390-square-foot vacation home.

The design includes a sleeping loft and rainwater harvesting, and widens the northeastern views over the Strait of Georgia to the mainland in the distance. “It sits quietly in the trees, as if it were a shadow,” says Dunford, who clad the single-room home in locally harvested red cedar that was stained black to blend into the edge of the thick second-growth forest.

Now parents to 2-year-old Martha, Dunford and Casselman ferry over from their home in Vancouver throughout the year when they need a dose of nature. “Being on the island,” says Dunford, “never fails to put life into perspective.”

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Sleeping Loft

The bedroom area fits a queen-size mattress—without taking up valuable floor space. To reach it, Dunford designed a ladder of wall-mounted metal rungs, like the ones used in old military bunkers.

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Outdoor Bathing

On-demand hot water supplies a copper-pipe outdoor shower and a soaking tub, whose platform is designed with a tilted base to match the shape of the main house. This spot is always the first stop after an invigorating swim at the beach, 2 minutes away by foot. “You can make it back in 30 seconds if there’s a hot shower in sight!” says Dunford.

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Compact Appliances

The single-wall kitchen is efficient both in its size and its high-tech appliances. A SunDanzer refrigerator designed by a former NASA engineer is solar-powered and requires minimal energy to run. <i><a href="https://sundanzer.com" target="_blank">sundanzer.com</a></i>

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Clever Hideaways

Smart storage solutions let the small space feel open and airy. Clothes and blankets are kept in drawers under the kitchen banquette, while books and magazines await in its shelved arm rests. <i>Canadian Hydrographic Service marine chart; <a href="http://charts.gc.ca" target="_blank">charts.gc.ca</a></i>

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Go Long

Rather than fill the limited square footage with a lot of furniture pieces, the couple built a 13-foot-long banquette that runs the length of a wall. The custom-designed piece has gray waxed canvas cushion covers that will endure years of use. <i>Tidal Flux Ottoman, $2,500; <a href="http://hinterlanddesign.com" target="_blank">hinterlanddesign.com</a><i>

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