Ranch Dressing

Clever design transforms a tiny lakeside cabin into a serene retreat — complete with spa.

The modest 1950s ranch house on a lake near Rhinebeck would have barely blipped your radar if you’d driven by it. Built as little more than a fishing cabin, it lacked — er, sophistication. Not to mention insulation. And space.

For five years, the little house served as a make-do home base for a couple who usually spend their winters south — preferably in the Caribbean. She is a hotelier, he a yoga and bodywork practitioner. For a while, the lake house suited their transient needs, but after renting for five years, they decided to become homeowners. That’s when the ideas started coming fast and furious.

“She needed an office,” says the homeowner of his partner. “We both do yoga and needed a steam room and sauna big enough to stretch out in.” Having admired the work of architect David Borenstein, they hired him for the project.

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“They didn’t want to build a mansion,” recalls Borenstein (who worked on the house with his then-associate, Nevien Sidarous). That was fortunate, since they wouldn’t have been allowed to anyway. Zoning restrictions allowed them to build up only by 50 percent, and they couldn’t build out without a variance. Hence the tower idea: Building above a den that had been added in the ’60s wouldn’t increase the footprint of the house but would create room for an office upstairs, as well as a new master bath. After more brainstorming sessions, architect and clients resolved to make the basement into a spa.

That idea required a vivid imagination. “It was a leaky, moldy space. You could see the waterlines on the walls,” says Borenstein. To complicate matters, the basement was only accessible from the outside through an old bulkhead cellar door, thus presenting the challenge of how to get to it from indoors. The solution: a new stairwell, running from the basement up to the first floor, with a second stairway to the second floor.

Paradoxically, adding the stairs ate up space in the kitchen but wound up making it more efficient. “We left the funky steel sink, added a few shelves and extended the counter,” says Borenstein. “It’s actually more streamlined now.”

The second floor is an airy space with a vaulted ceiling, and bamboo flooring, which has a light, modern feel. “It’s a green material, a fast-growing wood that’s considered a renewable resource,” says Borenstein. Eco-friendly practices were in place throughout the project. Borenstein avoided contributing to the landfill whenever possible. On the first level, rather than ripping out floors, he simply stripped and refinished what was there. Wood scraps from construction became part of the his-and-hers sink cabinet in the master bath. Borenstein hand-painted the cabinets with a Monet-like dot pattern (a signature), using colors left after painting the exterior trim. Recycled shutter catches serve as drawer pulls. In both the upstairs and basement baths, and in the steamroom, Borenstein offered his clients tile left over from previous jobs at a discount.

In the basement bath, a clawfoot tub reclaimed from a dumpster enjoys a second life (the owners use it for a cold dip after the sauna). “One of my clients was tearing apart his townhouse in New York City. They were going to throw out all his 150-year-old bath fixtures,” explains the homeowner. “That’s where we got the pedestal sink and all the hardware.”

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Says Borenstein of the basement spa: “For the small size, it looks like the space shuttle. I don’t think there’s an inch in there that we didn’t have to plan.” In one compact 500-square-foot space, you’ll now find the boiler, water heater, oil tank with a specially designed containment system, water treatment system, sump pump, full bath, steam room with glittering Ann Sacks glass tiles, and cedar sauna.

The house does not squander energy, either. It’s insulated with a water-blown foam called Icynene that doesn’t emit gases and is often used in museums for condensation control. It’s so efficient that Borenstein added a heat recovery ventilation system. “It’s a heat exchanger that brings in outside air and exhausts the stale air,” he explains. “When you reduce the loss, you don’t have the proper amount of air changes per hour, so this helps avoid sick house syndrome.”

HardiePlank, the durable fiber cement siding, is the answer to the homeowners’ plea for low maintenance without having to resort to vinyl. Resistant to fire, cracking, termites, and hail, the siding carries a long warranty and can easily be painted. In a twist, the architect reversed the colors on the trim and siding on the tower area so that the building makes a strong visual impression — quite unlike its previous bland incarnation.

The little lake house retreat is now so inviting, the yoga instructor-in-residence decided to stay in the Hudson Valley last winter for the first time in 15 years — trading Caribbean sun gear for long johns. “Without the steam and sauna, I’d be in agony,” he declares. â—

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