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Airbnb, Instagram, And The Rise Of The Optimized Cabin

Hudson Woods is a $25 million bet to suburbanize cabin life.

A two-hour drive north of New York City, Hudson Woods is one of those idyllic vacation destinations that city slickers salivate over–its open skies and rolling hills are a far cry from the city’s claustrophobic chaos.

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There, architect-turned-developer Drew Lang has built 26 luxury cabins, each with generous picture windows, slick appliances, exposed-beam ceilings, and wood cladding inside and out. They’re modern and beautiful–and they’re virtually identical. In Hudson Woods, Lang has found a way to elegantly combine some of the most elusive wants of home buyers: modern amenities, spaces that feel personal but can still be bought off the shelf, and design that causes serious envy on social media.

[Photo: Ty Cole]

As aspirational dwellings go, cabins rank near the top of the list. We’ve romanticized and practically fetishized the idea of building humble rural retreats (ahem, Cabin Porn). But not just anyone–even those with the budget to build one–can buy a cabin. You have to purchase land, hire an architect or construct it yourself, and have the time to tackle a complex and risky project.

With his 131-acre development, Lang is scaling and packaging cabin life the way suburban homebuyers might purchase a tract house. Yet Hudson Woods isn’t exactly Stepford Wives gone country. By incorporating just the right level of customization into the architecture, and working with the idiosyncrasies of the site, Lang is delivering designerati-approved dream homes. Just a couple years after announcing the development in 2015, all but two houses, which average about $1 million dollars depending on customization, have sold. The buyers are interior designers, graphic designers, architects, photographers, and advertising execs, among others–the type of homeowners who usually scoff at developments.

“What it boils down to is making design accessible and turning something inherently complex into something simple and easy to execute,” Lang says. “I saw this demand for a product and we see what we create as a product, but we didn’t start that way.” Here’s how he serialized the modern dream home.

[Photo: Deborah DeGraffenreid]

Just The Right Level Of Custom

Buying a Hudson Woods house is a lot like customizing a pair of Nike ID sneakers. The houses’ structure stays the same, they have the same floor plan, and the same gabled roofline. They’re about 2,800 square feet and have three bedrooms and two bathrooms, but buyers can choose from a menu of 30 different upgrade and customization options: copper roofing, charred-wood cladding, six colors of backsplash tile, a fruit-tree grove, a guest house, or a third story. The most popular extras? Pools and wood-burning stoves.

“It’s letting people have choice within a framework,” Lang says. “They buy lots, they make selections, then we build for them on that basis. In terms of people buying turn-key products for second homes, there have been [precedents of] time shares and suburban developments. We’re not doing anything new in that sense, but we’re bringing a higher level of design to and an authentic experience.”

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To Lang, what makes this type of design appealing is that all risk and uncertainty is removed from the process. Buyers don’t have to worry about the complexities of a custom build, but they can get the details they want. “People get stuck in all sorts of places: looking for land, understanding design process, finding the right fit in a contractor, all the way down to ‘How do I furnish it?” Lang says. “We thought, ‘let’s make this fun and easy for buyers.'”

The idea of treating a house like an off-the-shelf product has been an architecture industry obsession for decades, especially when it comes to prefab–which Lang’s methodology is not. The design of each home is more or less serialized, but construction is traditional. However, buyers get the modern look associated with prefab, which ends up being part of the construction technique’s appeal.

“Prefab is the holy grail in architecture that so many people try to attain and it ultimately doesn’t work,” Lang says. “I’m not certain exactly why but I think it’s because it ultimately leaves the buyer in a place where they have to figure out a lot on their own: the site costs, the furniture, the whole package. It’s only a partial product, not a complete product.”

While Hudson Woods doesn’t furnish the houses, it’s taken the liberty of assembling a list of high-end suppliers that embody the homespun-modern aesthetic, some of which comes from local designers–Allied Maker, Michael Robbins, and Sawkille Furniture, among others–and from global brands and retailers–Carl Hansen & Son, USM Modular Furniture, Kaufmann Mercantile.

This all makes it easier for customers to buy into a package deal of a particular lifestyle–one that’s becoming more mainstream and more ubiquitous. They can step into their dream home, without doing any of the leg work.

[Photo: Deborah DeGraffenreid]

Same House, Different View

Lang, a Yale-trained architect, launched Hudson Woods because he was interested in exploring how architecture and nature could peacefully coexist. He also didn’t want to confine his ideas to the drawing board, so he bought a plot of land and became a developer so he could test and execute these ideas.

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“It’s not anything groundbreaking,” Lang says of designing houses that embrace their site. “Sea Ranch [Lawrence Halprin’s 1960s utopian development on the northern California coast] is the one example we look to most. We’re not reinventing something, but we’re interested in doing it and seeing more of it. And making a statement against the way it’s usually done.”

The “way it’s usually done” means a developer clears a site–razing trees and leveling natural topography–to make it easier to build. While this simplifies the construction process, it also exposes the buildings’ similarities. “Now that we’re in the thick of being developers I understand why they do it–it’s less expensive,” Lang says. Instead, he limits human intervention on the site and takes a more surgical approach to how he places a house on it. Some of the homes are built into hillsides, others stand proud. This makes each cabin look different.

“The biggest differentiator in terms of the house, or cabin, is the site,” Lang says. “Some people don’t believe me when I say this, but when they come to Hudson Woods, even if it’s the same house, it looks remarkably different site to site. That’s part of the design intent.”

The houses feature one wall that’s entirely composed windows. From virtually every room, you can see the view. Lang also oriented the structures to take advantage of passive heating and cooling. “The houses are primarily defined by nature, even when you’re inside,” Lang says. “I think in a way it takes a lot of pressure off the house itself. Furniture personalizes it, too, but it’s tempered by the openness and the views and how that effects the interior experience.”

[Photo: Deborah DeGraffenreid]

Airspace And Aspiration

Hudson Woods has over 16,000 Instagram followers and Lang has received numerous inquiries from prospective buyers who came across the development through the image-sharing platform. Indeed, the cabins are picturesque and envy-inducing, the perfect Instagram bait.

The aesthetic is one you’ve likely seen before–it’s tasteful, inspired by midcentury design, and vaguely Scandinavian. It is the definition of hygge, the Danish word that roughly translates to coziness. It’s also emblematic of AirSpace, which the writer who invented the term, Kyle Chayka, describes as a “faux-artisanal aesthetic” that exists in more or less the same form all over the world, thanks to the interconnectedness social media has created.

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“There’s a lot to design that’s aspirational and it’s part of [Hudson Woods’ appeal],” Lang says. “As an architect, it’s always about how can we design something better, how can we improve on the way things have been done before. It’s the same for consumers: it’s how can I live better, how can I feel better, how can I reach that aspirational space. Then there’s this factor of pride: when [consumers] can be part of living in a specific way and having a home that’s well designed and recognized by people who come over to their house.”

Lang has been able to parlay this notion into more business since he’s tapped into a style that’s ultra desirable right now. All of these details have helped him reap a premium on his houses. Even though appraisers—who are typically hired as part of the mortgage and financing process—valued each house at less than Lang’s sticker price, buyers were willing to pay the premium. His architecture firm has received so much interest that he’s begun licensing his designs to other developers just to meet demand. People who’ve come across Hudson Woods have also become clients for their own one-off projects. The development has been profitable, and it’s also diversified the income stream of Lang’s firm, so it’s not just a client-based service provider.

Meanwhile, the residents of Hudson Woods have tapped into a potentially lucrative business: renting their homes on Airbnb. “It’s allowed and people definitely will do that,” Lang says. “[Buyers] are asking about it. We put our model house on Airbnb to see what happened and there was lots of demand.” If there’s a lesson to be learned from Lang and Hudson Woods’ success, it’s that good–albeit basic–design is big business.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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