BeachMountain Shack 01 – Design Criteria

This weekend was opening day for trout season in Pennsylvania, and I went fishing for the first time in over 10 years. The fishing was a disappointment, to be honest. A variety of theories abound as to why hardly anybody caught a fish on opening day: They stocked the streams a week earlier than usual. The water was too high and not clear enough. Someone had chummed the water with corn so that the fish wouldn’t bite on opening day, and they’d all be there a week later when the locals had their stream back. Whatever the reason, me and the guys were no luckier than the rest. I want to say that the trip would have been that much better if we had caught just one fish between us, but somehow the thought of splitting one small trout three ways seems even sadder than not catching anything at all.

Even without fish to talk about the campfire talk was lively. One of the things we talked about (maybe the only thing appropriate for mixed company) was, inevitably, how nice it might be to live out in the wilderness. The conversation started with the basics, everyone wanted a small shack away from it all. But slowly we added in more and more things we didn’t want to do without, like electricity, plumbing, and internet. We lost track of the subject rather quickly among other more “colorful” ones, but it was something I thought about more in the last day or two. Angela and I have a kind of half-joke, where when life gets hectic and difficult, I say we should go live in a mountain shack, and she says she wants to live in a beach shack. I’ve compromised and put “BeachMountain shack” up there in the title, but just between you and me, there ain’t no way I’m living on a beach. Too much sand, heat, and water you can’t drink, what a terrible place to live. I’d be all about living on a lake or a river, I don’t think I’ve ever lived much more than a mile away from a river in my life. But “ShoreMountain shack” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, so BeachMountain it is.

So what is it that I can’t live without, and still be happy? In design terms this is called “programming”. The client usually comes to the architect with a list of things that they think they want and need. It’s the architect’s job to take that list and find out what the essence is, to ask questions about the things on it, to ultimately add or subtract from it in order to get at what’s really important to the client. So this is what I found out today by talking with Angela and Liam: the program for our BeachMountain shack.


We call it a “shack”, but that’s looking like a misnomer here. We’ve all agreed that plumbing and electricity are things that we can’t really do without, and any building with either ceases to be a shack. Internet is something Angela and I are both on the fence about; strangely enough, Liam is the only one who ruled the internet out entirely (“internet and video games are fun, but not required”). My personal thought is that I would want a land line and a computer and only have a basic cell phone (not a smart phone). Smart phones are really useful in certain situations, but I hate using the smart phone or the tablet to do much more than phone and text anyway. On the whole, having a computer in my pocket does more harm than good. There are also potential areas of compromise. For example, Liam wants a swimming pool, but I think access to a lake or river would fill that need.


There is the predictable overlap of “core” rooms: kitchen, bathroom, and individual bedrooms. Strangely, Liam doesn’t even think that he needs a living space, even though when talking about amenities he stated a desire for a large house with many rooms and toys so that he wouldn’t get bored. The only thing he really perked up about when I suggested it was an observatory. I think Angela and I are on the same page with having some shared indoor area even though we didn’t use the same words to describe it. Conceptually, I really like the idea of having certain areas that can be temporarily abandoned in the case of bad weather. So, I’d like to have large outdoor spaces for living and working, retreat to the shack in cases of rain, and maybe even only heat the bedrooms in the case of extreme cold.

So, imagine what all that might look like. I like to think of this as a rural affair, and I think the three of us would agree on that. But then I asked the question: how far would you be willing to drive to get to a town? A town, in this case, being something with the bare necessities: grocery store, general store, clinic. Liam, myself and Angela answered 30 minutes, 25 minutes and 15 minutes, respectively. None of those numbers indicate to me a preference for rural living. I think there is some more thinking to be done about the kind of environment we’d really like to live in, and whether or not any or all of our needs could be met in the right urban location. Otherwise, I think we’d be hard pressed to find an undeveloped piece of land on a lake 15 minutes from anywhere.

As you can see, we still have a ways to go in just agreeing on what we want out of our dream shack. Once we do that we can start navigating the formal challenges, in other words, what the house will look at. We will need to end up somewhere between this (my preference):

… and this (Angela’s preference):

If you have any thoughts on what you could or couldn’t live without, or if there are good questions you think I didn’t ask, let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “BeachMountain Shack 01 – Design Criteria

  1. Might be a small thing, but I would add “fireplace” or “woodburning stove” to the list of needed amenities. Could be used for heating the main room in the winter as well as to cook things on occasion. Fireplaces are cool and pot-bellied stoves just look awesome. I’m assuming an outdoor firepit would be a feature, but if it’s raining/cold and you need heat/to cook without electricity, having an indoor fireplace would be useful as well.

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