The property, known as Camp Askatichi, had long been a retreat for family and friends. Situated in the town of Holderness, on Squam Lake, 40 miles north of Manchester, N.H., the patch of ground with its 900-square-foot cottage held many pleasant memories for owner Dean Hodge, 47, whose grandparents once ran a boardinghouse in the area.

But as Hodge's siblings started having children, and those children started coming to the lake, the cottage became a less comfortable haven. "We tried to jam them all in, but the camp was very small, very rustic, with one crummy bathroom. Plus all the systems were failing."

Hodge envisioned a grander, year-round residence that could also accommodate a home-based computer software design business, which he was planning to spin off from his company in Boston called Belvedere.


But any expansion to Camp Askatichi -- especially one that contemplated nearly tripling the original structure's living space -- would face one major hitch: "Dean's original camp was almost 100% within the setback," recalls Peter Francesco, a local selectman who was Holderness' zoning compliance and health officer.

Holderness' zoning laws, which have been in effect since 1985, require all lakefront structures to be set back 50 feet from the water and 35 feet from their property lines. The camp, built in 1928, was exempt through grandfathering provisions, even though parts of the camp, including its garage and storage shed, lay almost entirely within the buffer area.

Credit: Cheryle St. Onge Before

With the help of a creative designer, a methodical remodeler, and some legal arm twisting (see " Legal Wranglings"), Hodge managed to build within his real estate boundaries and realize his vision, which included a four-hip roof, bell dormers, three full bathrooms, and a modern kitchen "that is beautiful enough to make other people want to cook in it."

Time and materials

Holderness is near the town of Sandwich, where local remodelers and builders are known for their top-notch craftsmanship. It's here that Hodge found Jeff O'Neil, a remodeler with 20 years of experience and a self-described perfectionist who prefers to work slowly and eschews cutting corners to save money.

Cheryle St. Onge

O'Neil typically works on one project a year and never under a formal contract. On the basis of a handshake with Hodge, he agreed to manage the staging of the Camp Askatichi project and to handle all of its carpentry work, except for the kitchen cabinets. This agreement stipulated that Hodge would pay O'Neil and his crew $25 per hour per man (over the course of the project, his crews ranged from three to six men). Hodge also received 10% of the cost of the building materials.

O'Neil says he was drawn to this job by the latitude it offered him to practice his craft, relatively unencumbered by concerns about money or timetables. "We went into this job without a budget, which we never discussed," says O'Neil. "To me, this was a dream job because we didn't have to compromise."

That freedom allowed O'Neil to choose high-grade materials like 1-by-12-foot Eastern white pine sheathing rather than cheaper plywood. It also gave him license to favor some construction methods that even Hodge thought were a bit extravagant and time-consuming. For example, O'Neil's crews clamped every joist of the house's framing, because, he explains, clamping provides a tighter seal and allows framers to work more efficiently with engineered lumber, which is harder to nail. However, clamping also slows the construction considerably: The framing started on Nov. 1, 1999, and the crew didn't start putting in windows and doors until June 1, 2000.

Nevertheless, Hodge knew what he was getting when he hired O'Neil, whose unorthodox and laborious remodeling methods appear to be what appealed to Hodge in the first place.

Design challenges

O'Neil and the architect -- Robert Kelly Turpin of Christopher Williams, Architects, in Meredith, N.H. -- encountered some design and construction challenges on the way to realizing Hodge's vision. For one thing, Hodge wanted to "protect the essence" of the original cottage, which had been built with windows that "practically ran to the floor," while at the same time greatly expanding it.

The cottage, Turpin says, has a "fantastic" room with a fieldstone fireplace and a "wonderful view of the lake." So the architect's design focused on upgrading the cottage and maintaining its original core while expanding the camp's living and working quarters by connecting it to a large, 2,500-square-foot addition. The first floor of the two-story addition includes the kitchen, master bedroom, and living room. The second floor includes two bedrooms and an office.

Credit: Cheryle St. Onge

The design plan called for razing the garage and storage shed and building the addition on that land. Turpin reconfigured what had been the cottage's 14-by-15-foot kitchen into a dining room of about the same size that doubles as the "connection" linking the old and new structures.

O'Neil constructed the addition and this connection along the same orthogonal plane, 9 degrees off perpendicular from the cottage. O'Neil explains that this configuration slowed the framing process and required some adjustments to the cottage's roof and walls to match up the structures.

Hodge and Turpin praise O'Neil's work and organizational skills, which were especially evident during the construction and placement of a nine-windowed cupola that sits atop the roof of the addition. O'Neil's crew assembled the cupola on the ground and mounted it inside a square that was hoisted by crane so that the crew could build the roof to match the square before the cupola was lowered into position. "It was amazing; the crane was on and off the premises within 45 minutes," Hodge recalls.

Manning the subs

While O'Neil was the project's manager, the subcontractors reported to -- and in many cases were paid directly by -- Hodge, who assumed the role of general contractor and hired many of the subs himself. O'Neil says he preferred this arrangement because it relieved him of responsibility for the subs' work if it didn't meet Hodge's standards.

Hodge says he had been involved in remodeling projects previously, and he wanted more control over this job. The homeowner came up from Boston regularly to observe the construction's progress and met with O'Neil and Turpin at least once a week. Those discussions led to several design alterations, the most prominent of which may have been raising the elevation of the foundation by 18 inches so that the basement's ceiling would be higher.

Hodge hired his own electrician and countertop installer. He rejected a plumber O'Neil wanted to hire because the plumber took umbrage at Hodge's decision to purchase his own fixtures.

Cheryle St. Onge

This level of homeowner involvement in the minutiae of a remodeling or building project is common in New Hampshire, according to Gunnar Berg, a well-respected artisan who owns Sandwich Cabinet Shop. Hodge hired Berg, whom he's known for nearly three decades, to design and install kitchen cabinets in this home.

Berg remembers that O'Neil "was all too happy to turn [the cabinet work] over to us." And though O'Neil admits to being "a bit amazed, at first," at Hodge's insistence about picking his own subs, he harbors no misgivings about the project. "It all worked out fine in the end."

While he believes most owners try to shoehorn "too much house" onto lakefront properties, O'Neil says he's pleased with his participation in Turpin's solution to the zoning dilemma Hodge's project posed.

His satisfaction with the profit he made on this job is harder to gauge, because O'Neil didn't want to discuss specifics. Hodge and Turpin indicate that the remodeler did this job for less than what other area contractors would have charged. "He wasn't trying to get rich," confirms Hodge.

Forest from the trees

In December 2000, 15 months after breaking ground, Hodge moved into a home that is now 3,400 square feet, almost three times the size of the original. The homeowner estimates the project cost him about $750,000 and increased the value of his property to more than $1.6 million.

Turpin says that the design accomplished his primary objective: to allow the lake to be visible wherever one stands inside. Those vistas, though, came with some environmental sacrifices, namely the chopping down of 100 trees to make way for the larger home, a new septic system, and other landscaping flourishes. In what Hodge characterizes as an "homage" to the thinned-out forest, murals of trees were painted onto the walls of his home's main entry, its dining room, and up the stairwell. --John Caulfield is a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey. He has been reporting on the home improvement industry for more than two decades.

Legal Wranglings

Two-and-a-half years after moving into his remodeled home in Holderness, N.H., Dean Hodge still gets irked when he remembers how local officials tried to thwart his plan to almost triple the square footage of that home.

Many municipalities are zoned to keep waterfront development under control and protect the environment. Quite a few have stopped issuing variances, too.

Holderness requires that homes near Squam Lake be set back 50 feet from the water and 35 feet from their property lines. When Hodge alerted the town of his intention to expand Camp Askatichi beyond the zoning limitations, the town wanted him to move the camp's cottage and outbuildings back 2 1/2 feet, "so he'd have a portion that was less nonconforming," says Peter Francesco, who at the time was Holderness' zoning compliance and health officer.

Hodge's architect, Robert Turpin, convinced the town's planning board to let Hodge tear down the outbuildings and use their "volume" for a two-story, 2,500-square-foot addition. Jeff O'Neil, the remodeler who managed this project, says that some of the cottage's walls had to be "rearranged" and a bathroom torn out to accommodate the dining room Turpin designed to link the old and new structures.

Francesco says this variance "surprised" members of the zoning board and some selectmen, who moved to have the exception overturned.

Their maneuvering lit a fire under Hodge, who enlisted his neighbors to testify on his behalf and threatened to sue the town if it continued to deny his "right to build on my property." The selectmen backed down "after they received a letter from my attorney," says Hodge. But his resentment still lingers. "Their argument wasn't intelligible; some nonsense about 'density.' It was scurrilous, really," he said in an interview in February.

Homes Away from Home

There aren't firm numbers tracking how many vacation homes get converted into year-round dwellings. But remodelers serving resort communities see this trend gaining momentum, as more city and suburban dwellers look toward the forests and shorelines for their own Private Idahos.

"It's very common for people to be doing this," observes Del Anderson, a designer with Waldenwood, a remodeler in Shorewood, Minn. "Retirement is one of the issues that people address" by making their homes more inhabitable, he says.

When he's remodeling a cottage into a year-round dwelling, Anderson tries to steer owners away from "chalet-style" designs and toward interiors that feature a great room that extends naturally into dining, living, and kitchen areas.

Craig Smyth, president of Clemleddy Construction in Hawley, Pa., has noticed a common thread in these conversions: a master bedroom suite (which differs from the smaller bedrooms Anderson finds his clients requesting), refurbished and expanded kitchens and baths, primary heating and air conditioning systems, and upgraded electrical wiring to handle computers and other electronic devices.

With the value of lakefront property skyrocketing, more owners are turning simple cottages into castles. "Everyone wants a McMansion these days," says Smyth, whose company recently tore down a 25-year-old, 1,500-square-foot home and rebuilt it as a 3,000-square-foot house with year-round amenities.

Knutson Brothers II in East Troy, Wis., is currently adding a 22-by-20-foot addition onto a 32-by-32-foot cottage. It is installing an HVAC system, as well as new insulation and siding. On a conversion it just completed, the company added a second floor, reconfigured and renovated the first floor, and replaced the windows, insulation, and siding.

Cindy Knutson-Lycholat, the company's designer and business manager, says she spends two to four months planning remodeling jobs like these, which typically take three to four months to build and average around $200,000, excluding kitchen and bath remodeling.

"As you're going along, the client always wants more," Smyth says. That demand for more, though, frequently collides with zoning restrictions and variance moratoriums. Consequently, when owners want vacation homes to be turned into year-round palaces, they often settle for setting back the houses farther from the water, thereby diluting their aesthetic value.