Top Building and Design Decisions for a Getaway House

In many ways, the design and construction process for a second home can be more enjoyable and carefree than for a primary residence. By building your retreat from the ground up, you get to maximize its R&R potential. Whether kicking back means quiet, leisurely weekends with a good book or action-packed family escapes with barbecue marathons, mountain hikes and lake toys is up to you.


© via skynesher/getty images

Building your getaway home isn’t all fun and games, however. You’ll need to make practical decisions about its design and finishes, taking into account you won’t be living there full time.


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“The differences between a vacation home and a full-time home are very personal, so I’d encourage anyone considering one to spend some time thinking about how they live differently while they are there,” says California-based Ward Young architect Aren Saltiel. “You may spend more of your time at a vacation home socializing with family and friends, or relaxing on your own.”

Here are 11 design and building considerations to ensure your getaway home is a haven, not a hassle.


Prioritize systems and materials that are low in maintenance and high in durability, so you don’t spend your entire vacation troubleshooting and performing repairs.

“Budget is always a consideration,” says architect Ibrahim Greenidge of Brooklyn-based BOLT Architecture. “I suggest investing in the highest quality, most energy-efficient systems [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] you can afford for a vacation home that is comfortable in any season and also won’t cause you headaches down the road.”

Use of Space

How you use interior spaces on vacation is different from your day-to-day life, with more focus on leisure activities and less on pure functionality. Saltiel suggests prioritizing comfort in shared social spaces, for example, and deemphasizing storage and closet space because you won’t keep all your belongings there.

“There’s definitely a trend towards smaller, more utilitarian bedrooms and bigger, more connected and comfortable living spaces,” he says. This different use of space can significantly change how you approach the overall design and layout of your getaway home.


Your primary home needs to be comfortable all year long, but that may not be the case with your second home or cabin.

“Consider the season you’ll be spending a majority of the time at this home,” Greenidge says. “If it’s winter, then efficient heating will be a must-have. If it’s summer, then maybe you forgo heating in the short term to prioritize the installation of an efficient cooling system.”

If you’re planning to use your second home as a winter retreat, Saltiel suggests installing a heating system that can respond quickly when you arrive, like forced air heat.


You may be lucky and enjoy sweeping views from your full-time home. More likely, your “view” begins and ends with your neighbors’ yards. If the land where you plan on building your vacation home features scenic views, maximize them. Orient the home in the most panoramic direction and place the windows to frame the most stunning vistas.

Remote Technology

Smart technology that offers remote access to systems like lighting and HVAC is becoming increasingly common in full-time homes, but can be especially useful for a second home. “Give serious consideration to creating a smart home which allows remote functionality to access lighting and mechanical systems during seasonal changes,” Greenidge says.

Remotely adjusting the temperature can prevent damage from frozen pipes, for example, and switching lights on and off after dusk can deter break-ins. Remote access also lets you prepare your getaway home for your arrival.

“If the home is in a colder climate, you should consider a heating system that you are able to access remotely ahead of time,” Saltiel says. One possibility: Hydronic heat with app-based or WiFi controls.

Getaway Goals: Guest Traffic and Interior Finishes

Your full-time home may prioritize function over fun, but your second home is all about your definition of play. Keep that in mind when choosing where to skimp and where to splurge on interior finishes.

If your goal is to regularly host friends and family, opt for durable flooring that can withstand lots of guest traffic, and sturdy furniture that converts into extra sleeping and dining space. If you can’t wait for indulgent self-care weekends, spring for bathroom luxuries such as a deep tub or sauna.

If the perfect getaway means hours of uninterrupted time preparing gourmet meals, consider state-of-the-art appliances and finishes and perhaps an outdoor kitchen.

Emphasize the Outdoors

With extra time to relax at your second home, the outdoor living spaces are just as important as the interiors. Make the most of your natural surroundings by building patios, decks and porches that seamlessly extend your indoor spaces.

Invest in inviting outdoor furnishings, fire pits or outdoor heaters, or an open-air kitchen. You’ll enjoy them whether you have guests or you just want a quiet retreat for yourself.

Rental Opportunities

Many homeowners mitigate the cost of building and maintaining their getaway home by renting it as a vacation property when they’re not using it themselves. “If you plan on opening the home for rentals, consider details that make the rental more appealing,” Greenidge says. “Just be sure you’re OK with things getting damaged or stolen.”

Opt for multipurpose furniture and an open floor plan that allows plenty of flexibility on how many guests you can sleep. Make sure the finishes, from countertops to plumbing fixtures, are durable enough to stand up to the hard wear of strangers. And if you plan on renting to larger families or groups, be sure the septic system can handle it.

Ease of Shutting Down Systems

All good things must come to an end, including vacation. You’ll likely close up your second home at least once a year for an extended period, and your systems should be designed to make that process quick and easy.

“Think about setting up the plumbing system so that it’s easy to drain,” says The Money Pit podcast host Tom Kraeutler. “And remember that in some colder climates, you’ll have to run the heat every day at your vacation residence, even when you’re not there, to avoid damage, so invest in a low-maintenance but reliable heating system.”


As with smart technology, home security systems are particularly important to consider for a cabin or vacation home that’s left unattended for long periods.

If your getaway home is in a remote location or you plan to trick it out with, say, a high-end entertainment system or top-tier kitchen appliances, Kraeutler says investing in a trustworthy security system with remote cameras to keep your eye on things may be a priority.

Future Flexibility

Changing up your primary residence as your household expands and contracts is common, but your getaway home is often a labor of love that may stay in the family for generations. Keep that in mind when coming up with a design. Go with a flexible floor plan that adapts to the changing size of your family and evolving interests and activities over the years.

Slice, dice and serve in style on this easy, attractive board. We’ll show you a simple way to dry-fit the parts, scribe the arc and then glue the whole thing together. We used a 4-ft. steel ruler to scribe the arcs, but a yardstick or any thin board would also work. Find complete how-to instructions on this woodworking crafts project here.

Be sure to use water-resistant wood glue, and keep your board out of the dishwasher or it might fall apart. And one more thing: Keep the boards as even as possible during glue-up to minimize sanding later. For great tips on gluing wood, check out this collection.

Build this handy stool in one hour and park it in your closet. You can also use it as a step to reach the high shelf. To make the storage shelves, all you need is a 4 ft. x 4 ft. sheet of 3/4-in. plywood, wood glue and a handful of 8d finish nails. Cut the plywood pieces according to the illustration. Spread wood glue on the joints, then nail them together with 8d nails. First, nail through the sides into the back. Then nail through the top into the sides and back. Finally, mark the location of the two shelves and nail through the sides into the shelves.

Don’t have floor space to spare? Build these super simple wall-mounted shoe organizers instead.

Store shoes up off the floor in clean, natural wood racks. This simple storage system can handle everything from winter boots to summer sandals, with no mud buildup or scuff marks on the wall. Build one to share or one for each member of the family. Find complete how-to instructions here.

For wet shoes and boots, we recommend this attractive, simple-to-make tray.

Need extra seating in a hurry? This simple bench, based on author and ecologist Aldo Leopold’s classic design, can be constructed in a couple of hours, even if you are a novice woodworker. All it takes is two boards and 18 screws, for a cost of less than $25. You’ll find the simple how-to instructions here.

Have you ever wondered if you can stain pressure-treated wood? The answer is, yes. Here’s how!

Give your back and knees a break with this portable, easy-to-build seat/step stool/tool box/work surface. It only takes a couple of hours to build and you’ll find dozens of uses for it. Check out the easy-to-follow instructions here. If you’re looking for a small bench/step stool that’s a little more attractive than this one, here’s one for you to consider.

Need a good way to archive magazines and other important papers? Build these simple wood storage bins and have all of your favorites at your fingertips instead of lost in a towering pile. You can build four bins from one 2 ft. x 4 ft. sheet of 1/4-in. plywood and two 6-ft. long 1x4s. And cutting the wood is easy with a jigsaw or band saw.

Clear up entryway clutter with a simple coat and hat rack that you can build in about an hour from a 6 ft. 1×4 and coat hooks. Cut the boards to fit your space, paint them, outfit them with different kinds of hooks to suit your needs and then screw them to the wall. Check out the detailed how-to instructions here.

You’ll find hooks in a tremendous range of styles, colors and prices at hardware stores and online retailers. For inspiration, check out these clever and unusual coat hooks.

This spice rack will keep your favorite 18 seasonings on ready alert. It’s quick and fun to make and fits inside a standard kitchen cabinet. You’ll need:

  • An 11-1/2 in. and a 7-1/4 in. diameter wood discs
  • 9-in. lazy Susan hardware
  • Four 1-5/8 in. x 5/8 in. dowels for legs
  • One 5-1/4 in. x 5/8 in. dowel handle
  • A 1-7/8 in. Forstner drill bit
  • A 5/8-in. spade or brad point drill bit
  • A 1-1/2 in. wood ball or other knob.

With a pencil and a protractor, divide the larger disc into 30-degree wedges to create 12 center lines for the bottle indents. Center and trace the smaller disc on top of the larger disc. Next, with a drill press, drill 3/8-in. deep holes on the 12 center lines with the 1-7/8-in. Forstner bit, spacing them between the disc’s outer edge and the traced circle. Next, divide the smaller disc into 60-degree wedges and drill six more 3/8-in. deep holes with the Forstner bit.

Drill four 5/8-in. diameter, 1/2-in. deep holes on the large disc, inside the traced circle. Then use 5/8-in. dowel centers to transfer the hole locations to the underside of the small disc. Drill four 1/2-in. deep holes on the underside of the small disc and a 1/2-in. deep hole in the center of the top for the dowel handle. Glue in the dowels to join the discs, then glue in the handle. We drilled a wood ball for a handle knob, but a screw-on ceramic knob also provides a comfortable, attractive grip. Apply a finish to match your cabinets, then center and screw the lazy Susan bearing under the large disc and play spin the bottle.

If your spices are jammed into a drawer with only the tops visible, this nifty rack that slips neatly into the drawer will solve the pantry storage problem. And it only takes an hour to build. Make it with scraps of 1/4-in. and 1/2-in. plywood. Or build a two-tier drawer spice rack.

Bring a bit of nature indoors with this simple branch-supported shelf. Find two forked branches about one inch in diameter, with one relatively straight side that will sit flush to the wall. Find all of the simple how-to instructions for building this shelf here. And for lots of hints and tips on hanging shelves, check out our guide.

This handsome knife block is fast, easy, fun to build and includes a 6-in. wide storage box for a knife sharpener. To build one, you only need a 3/4-in. x 8-in. x 4-ft. hardwood board and a 6-in. x 6-1/2-in. piece of 1/4-in. hardwood plywood to match.

Begin by cutting off a 10 inch length of the board and setting it aside. Rip the remaining 38-in. board to 6 in. wide and cut five evenly spaced saw kerfs 5/8 in. deep along one face. Crosscut the slotted board into four 9-in. pieces and glue them into a block, being careful not to slop glue into the saw kerfs (you can clean them out with a knife before the glue dries). Saw a 15-degree angle on one end and screw the plywood piece under the angled end of the block.

Cut the 6-1/2 in. x 3-in. lid from the leftover board, and slice the remaining piece into 1/4-in. thick pieces for the sides and end of the box. Glue them around the plywood floor. Cut a rabbet on three sides of the lid so it fits snugly on the box and drill a 5/8-in. hole for a finger pull. Then just add a finish and you’ve got a beautiful, useful gift. If you don’t have time to make a gift this year, consider offering to do something for the person. You could offer to sharpen their knives!

Here’s a great gift idea that will draw raves. The joints for this step stool are accurately made in seconds with a plate jointer, but don’t tell your admirers. You’ll also need a power saw to crosscut the boards and a jigsaw to cut the half-circles in the risers. Get the complete project directions here.

The space behind a door is a storage spot that’s often overlooked. Build a set of shallow shelves and mount it to the wall. The materials cost about $40. Get the project drawings here.

Locate the studs. Drill clearance holes and screw the shelves to the studs with 2-1/2-in. wood screws. Put a rubber bumper on the frame to protect the door. Don’t have an electronic stud finder handy? Learn how to locate studs without a stud finder here.

To keep your ironing gear handy but out from underfoot, make this simple ironing center in a couple of hours for some small room organization. All you need is a 10-ft. 1×8, a 2-ft. piece of 1×6 for the shelves, and a pair of hooks to hang your ironing board.

Cut the back, sides, shelves and top. Align the sides and measure from the bottom 2 in., 14-3/4 in. and 27-1/2 in. to mark the bottom of the shelves. Before assembling the unit, use a jigsaw to cut a 1 in. x 1 in. dog ear at the bottom of the sides for a decorative touch.

Working on one side at a time, glue and nail the side to the back. Apply glue and drive three 1-5/8-in. nails into each shelf, attach the other side and nail those shelves into place to secure them. Clamps are helpful to hold the unit together while you’re driving nails. Center the top piece, leaving a two inch overhang on both sides, and glue and nail it into place. Paint or stain the unit and then drill pilot holes into the top face of each side of the unit and screw in the hooks to hold your ironing board. Mount the shelf on drywall using screw-in wall anchors.

There’s a lot of space above the shelf in most closets. Even though it’s a little hard to reach, it’s a great place to store seldom-used items. Make use of this wasted space by adding a second shelf above the existing one. Buy enough closet shelving material to match the length of the existing shelf, plus enough for two end supports and middle supports over each bracket. Twelve-inch-wide shelving is available in various lengths and finishes at home centers and lumberyards.

We cut the supports 16 inches long, but you can place the second shelf at whatever height you like. Screw the end supports to the walls at each end. Use drywall anchors if you can’t hit a stud. Then mark the position of the middle supports onto the top and bottom shelves with a square and drill 5/32-in. clearance holes through the shelves. Drive 1-5/8-in. screws through the shelf into the supports. You can apply this same concept to garage storage. See how to build double-decker garage storage shelves here.

Five plastic containers, six 2x2s and screws, and one hour’s work are all it takes to put together this space-saving recycling storage rack. Our frame fits containers that have a top that measures 14-1/2 in. x 10 in. and are 15 inches tall. Our containers were made by Rubbermaid.

If you use different size containers, adjust the distance between the uprights so the 2x2s will catch the lip of the container. Then adjust the spacing of the horizontal rungs for a snug fit when the container is angled as shown.

Start by cutting the 2x2s to length according to the illustration. Then mark the position of the rungs on the uprights. Drill two 5/32-in. holes through the uprights at each crosspiece position. Drill from the outside to the inside and angle the holes inward slightly to prevent the screws from breaking out the side of the rungs.

Drive 2-1/2 in. screws through the uprights into the rungs. Assemble the front and back frames. Then connect them with the side crosspieces. Want even more space in the garage? Check out these DIY garage storage tips.

Here’s a traditional Swedish farm accessory for gunk-laden soles. The dimensions are not critical, but be sure the edges of the slats are fairly sharp — they’re what makes the boot scraper work. Cut slats to length, then cut triangular openings on the side of a pair of 2x2s. A radial arm saw works well for this, but a table saw or band saw will also make the cut. Trim the 2x2s to length, pre-drill, and use galvanized screws to attach the slats from underneath. If you prefer a boot cleaner that has brushes, check out this clever project.

Books and binders tend to take up a lot of space in an office and aren’t always in an easy-to-reach spot. Solve that by creating a sliding bookend. To corral shelf-dwelling books or DVDs that like to wander, cut 3/4-in. thick hardwood pieces into 6-in. x 6-in. squares. Use a band saw or jigsaw to cut a slot along one edge (with the grain) that’s a smidgen wider than the shelf thickness. Stop the notch 3/4 in. from the other edge. Finish the bookend and slide it on the shelf. Want to build the shelves too? We’ve got complete plans for great-looking shelves here.

Turn a single 3-ft. long, 1×12 hardwood board into some small shelves to organize a desktop or counter. Cut off a 21-in. long board for the shelves, rip it in the middle to make two shelves, and cut 45-degree bevels on the two long front edges with a router or table saw. Bevel the ends of the other board, cut dadoes — grooves cut into the wood with a router or a table saw with a dado blade — cross-wise (cut a dado on scrap and test-fit the shelves first!). Then cut it into four narrower boards, two at 1-3/8 in. wide and two at 4 in.

Finish, then assemble with brass screws and finish washers for one of these easy wood projects. For expert advice on how to finish wood, check out this collection of tips.

Be sure to check out our Saturday Morning Projects for more inspiration, like the coasters in the video below:

20/20 SLIDES

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