A photographer and an architect, friends and neighbors, craft a small retreat in the woods outside Tillamook
written by Melissa Dalton photography by Shawn Records
Both Shawn Records and his wife, Jenny, grew up in Idaho with a “mountain place” in their families. His grandparents had a little trailer at Lake Cascade, while Jenny’s parents built a cabin close to Lake Fork, ten miles south of McCall. Around 2013, the now Portland-based couple—he’s a photographer, and she’s a librarian—started looking for a little extra land of their own to continue the tradition and build a new place for a new generation of the family, said Records.
They started scouting out the Oregon Coast, but contrary to so many buyers, didn’t necessarily want to be on the water. Then they found a seven-acre forested parcel outside Tillamook, with a meadow clearing, salmonberry thickets, and deer trails carved through groves of alder trees. “What I liked about this particular spot is that there were a variety of different ‘rooms’ in the forest,” said Records. “Four or five, just magical little spots.”
After purchase, the couple explored the land with their two children, hiking and clearing trails, and sleeping in an Airstream trailer. “But then I learned that you can’t do that in Tillamook County. That’s just not a thing that is allowed,” said Records of living on-site in the trailer. “So, the cabin came after the universe rejected my first plan.” Fortunately, Records’ next door neighbor and friend, Jeremy Spurgin, is the principal architect at Portland firm Outside Architecture, and the two began spit-balling the possibilities. “The cabin, in a sense, came out of a number of beers and big idea conversations standing out on the sidewalk,” said Records.
It’s not often that design inspiration is found in a gas station, but that’s exactly what happened to Records during an oil change one day. “As I’m sitting in my car in the Oil Can Henry’s, I was thinking about how amazing it is to have such great light on both sides, front and back,” said Records. “I was like, ‘I want to do that. I want to build a little Oil Can Henry’s in the woods where it just feels like a big open space that is outdoors primarily.’” Spurgin saw how such an approach would accommodate the couple’s love for the land: “The goal of this cabin was for it to not disrupt what we all really loved about the natural setting,” said Spurgin.
To do that, the architect sited the cabin, not on its highest point, but where the best natural light could filter inside, ensconced in the meadow with unimpeded views into the family’s cherished “magic woods.” At first glance, the exterior form appears simple: rectangular, clad in cedar, with a metal gable roof, but Spurgin took the idea of an iconic American dogtrot-style home and gave it a twist.
“As I’m sitting in my car in the Oil Can Henry’s, I was thinking about how amazing it is to have such great light on both sides, front and back. I was like, ‘I want to do that. I want to build a little Oil Can Henry’s in the woods where it just feels like a big open space that is outdoors primarily.’”— Shawn Records, on the design inspiration for his family’s cabin
The dogtrot house first appeared in Appalachia and was originally formed by two log cabins—one for cooking and eating, and one for sleeping—connected by a central breezeway, or dogtrot, and all tucked under one roof. Back then, the breezeway was essential for ventilation. Here, Spurgin placed the main living spaces in the middle of the plan, and fitted 20-foot-long sliding glass doors with decks on both sides, essentially creating a de-facto breezeway at the center, and carving out “voids” to get the transparency that the couple sought.
On one side of the building, the porch runs the whole length of the home, but without the trappings of posts and railings, making it a more modern take on the traditional form. “It’s like if you took a really simple Monopoly house and then just carved that porch out of it,” said Spurgin. “Most times when you see a covered porch, it feels tacked on. This feels more part of the body of the home.” This further blurs the experience of inside and out for occupants, and the covered space can act as a mudroom or unloading area when people drive up.
The building’s footprint is small—about 820 square feet—but essential design planning expands it. “You’re designing down to the square inch rather than the square foot,” said Spurgin. The living area is bookended by a bedroom on one side, and the entry, bathroom, and a small study on the other. Vaulted ceilings in the main room are complemented by lofts on either end, flushed with sun from skylights and accessed by a rolling library ladder.
“It being a small structure, we didn’t want to overcomplicate it,” said Spurgin of the material palette. To that end, there’s no drywall: just birch plywood and white laminate cabinet doors, concrete floors and glass. Custom cabinetry fashioned by Portland studio Spacecraft defines the kitchen and artfully composes the media wall, and was installed high enough to foster privacy and separation for the lofts.
Nowadays, Shawn and Jenny get to the cabin most weekends. “All we ever want to do out there is go outside, and drink coffee and read books,” said Records. “It kind of feels like going to church in the outdoors.”