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Cabin fever: These designer huts are the perfect cold-weather getaways

Beside a lake in the mountains of western Norway, a rise of wood and stone curves up from the ground and swoops back down again. This knoll is actually a lodge built for hunting and enjoying nature, a 375-square-foot building that barely disturbs the earth and, under a light snowfall, vanishes into the rocky landscape.

For the owner, businessman Osvald Bjelland, this is a place to get away with friends. They can only reach the structure, designed by Oslo architects Snohetta, on foot or horseback, and use it as a base for hunting, cooking around a hearth and sleeping. It isn’t the only project of its kind. In many northern climates, such small, increasingly stylish shelters provide a welcome refuge and a return to the basics.

The Shelter for Unavailability (above and below) features walls made from slabs of ice moulded in the snow.

Designers in both Scandinavia and Canada are addressing our contradictory urges to confront winter and to hunker down somewhere warm by creating cozy structures within harsh landscapes. Gartnerfuglen, a young Oslo architecture firm, embraced these sentiments with a small hut they call the Shelter for Unavailability. It is designed for ice fishing, an activity that’s becoming increasingly popular among Norwegians for its sustainability but also “as a reaction to the hamster wheel of society,” says Garnerfuglen’s Olav Lunde Arneberg. The building is as simple as possible: a foldable wooden frame with a pitched roof and open spaces for panels of ice that form the walls (made by freezing lake water in the snow). Inside, the sunlight filters through the ice while the wind stays out. “There is always something beautiful about being out in nature,” Arneberg says. “This is intensified in winter. You really feel nature’s power and that you need to respect it to actually survive.”

In Winnipeg, meanwhile, this sort of interplay with the weather has led to a creative assortment of “warming huts” along a skating trail on the Assiniboine and Red rivers. An annual competition invites architects and other designers to imagine what a contemporary shelter can look like.

The American architect Kevin Erickson came up with a novel response to the Winnipeg challenge: Make walls out of rope. Curved, vertical members of birch plywood support a skin made from hundreds of thick strands of manila rope, with gaps that allow light to shine in. Erickson and his office, KNE Studio, found that rope is an excellent insulator; by arranging the hut with its back to the prevailing wind, they created a comfortable microclimate inside.

U.S. architect Kevin Erickson coiled rope (shown in detail below) around this conceptual structure in Winnipeg to block out the wind but allow light in.

“It’s about blocking wind, about being warm,” Erickson says. “But it’s also about creating a sense of warmth through colour and light.”

Emotional warmth was likewise the key quality for a Winnipeg team of young designers, from the firms Plain Projects, URBANINK and Pike Projects, who won an award for their Hygge House in 2012. That structure takes the idea of a traditional cabin and makes it into a sort of stage set that has been shrunk in scale, sliced in half and coated with fluorescent yellow paint. Skaters pass by to see others taking a break in a rocking chair, gathering around a kitchen table or warming their hands next to a wood stove.

“Our main objective is to maximize the social opportunities,” says Pike Projects’s Colin Grover. “To provide relief from winter’s isolation, to beat winter’s blues by amplifying the cheery smiles of passing skaters.” The space gets its name from the Danish concept of hygge, or creating a sense of coziness and warm hospitality against the cold. “We built on this to generate a large-scale, collective hygge, to generate a kinship amongst the skaters taking respite from this gloomier side of winter,” says Grover.

This past year, Toronto’s RAW Design took an even more playful approach. Their shelters, which they called Nuzzles, were essentially large bundles of pool noodles. Bound together at the middle by a steel geodesic dome, the clusters of colourful foam looked like playthings – “giant pompoms or koosh balls,” RAW architect Aaron Hendershott says with a laugh. “People and adults were climbing on them, jumping into them. They invited people to nuzzle right in.” Their inexpensive foam also provides a surprising measure of comfort despite its light weight. The function of a conventional hut remains while most of its size, shape and materials disappear. “Our history is as a culture that’s living off the land and working with limited resources,” says Hendershott. “With current thinking about sustainability, I think we’re really re-evaluating the need to work with less.”

The Hygge House is a downsized cross section of a traditional cabin.

Getting back to essentials is an enticing idea. As Olav Lunde Arneberg explains, this is why his firm’s poetic hut design is devoted to the idea of “unavailability.” “It seems like being disconnected is no longer respected in today’s society,” he says. “But this is an important part of being human. It is important to have the time to reflect.”

This is the promise of the simple hut: a place for our buzzing, always-on minds to rest, on ice.

This story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Globe Style Advisor. To download the magazine's free iPad app, visit tgam.ca/styleadvisor.

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