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A Cabin Is Not a Shack

An antique wood stove, a vintage Hoosier kitchen cabinet, a table and chairs occupy the ground floor. A ship’s ladder leads to the second level, a large window-rimmed space with a futon, a wood-burning stove, bookcases, a couple of ottomans, and a TV and VCR. A six-foot-square acrylic skylight in the roof’s dome adds more light.

Although the space is small, the Sheldens have hosted Thanksgiving dinner for 12 on a warm November day. Their daughter, Claire, 21, has invited friends for cookouts and campfires. The cabin is close to home — only 17 miles away — so the Sheldens can visit frequently. In the winter, though, they can drive only so far. “We ski up the last half-mile,” Mr. Shelden said.

For those who want a cabin fast and with minimal effort and expense, pre-fab modular models are increasingly popular. They are built off-site in truck-width “boxes,” driven to a property, and dropped onto the owner’s foundation, complete down to the microwave oven. Once derided as flimsy, modular cabins are sturdier now; companies are offering better design and more durable materials at an affordable price.

“A big trend for cabins is turnkey,” Don Butler, editor of Cincinnati-based Cozy Cabins magazine, said. “People don’t want to do the whole thing — find the land, find an architect, put the whole thing together.”

Greg and Linda Corless were two of those people. Seeking relief from sweltering summers at their home in Altamonte Springs, Fla., the Corlesses bought land in the hills of western North Carolina in 2006. After casting about for an easy way to oversee the project from nine hours away, they bought a modular cabin from Blue Ridge Log Cabins in Campobello, S.C. Mr. Corless, 40, the chief financial officer for a car dealership group in Orlando, served as long-distance general contractor, knowing there wasn’t much for him to do beyond preparing the site and hiring sub-contractors to connect the electricity and plumbing.

The Corlesses purchased an 1,800-square-foot, two-bedroom cabin for $120,000, including all appliances. It resembles a traditional log cabin but with bigger windows (and more of them) and amenities including a wraparound porch and a cathedral ceiling. The Corlesses chose to add a gas fireplace with a stacked stone front as a separate project.

“It was spooky,” said Mrs. Corless, 39, as she recalled entering the cabin two weeks after it was put into position by a crane. “You walk in and the stove is in there, and the ceiling fans are there with the light bulbs in them.” She spent over a month in North Carolina last summer with the couple’s two daughters, Layton, 5, and Noelle, 4. The family makes about five visits in other seasons. “Mountain music, bonfires, s’mores, sledding in the wintertime — that’s what we do,” Mrs. Corless said. “The minute we walk in there and smell the wood, we’re on vacation.”

While the Corlesses use traditional power, the most eco-conscious of the new cabinistas want to supply all of their own energy. Sam Snyder, an orthopedic surgeon in Bergen County, N.J., was a man with a mission while he and his wife, Junko, were building their cabin near Hudson, N.Y., in 2003. “My No. 1 goal was to have a zero carbon footprint, and we accomplished that,” he said. Their 1,000-square-foot, cedar-shingled aerie gets all the power it needs, including the supply for baseboard heat, from solar panels and a wind turbine on an 80-foot-high tower. There’s also a solar hot water system.

The cabin has a full bathroom, a closed bedroom and two open sleeping lofts. A little library is filled with books on various styles of cabins, collected during the research phase of the project. The Snyders found what they were looking for on a Web site for a company called Lucia’s Little Houses and bought the plans for $400 from Robert Knight, an architect in Blue Hill, Me. They built the cabin for $200,000 and spent $40,000 more on the energy system — worth every cent to Dr. Snyder. “Every time I step outside and the wind is blowing and the sun is shining,” he said, “I smile because I’m making all my own energy.”

Despite all the transformations cabins have undergone in the past decade, they remain, at heart, deeply personal places shaped by their owners as sacred retreats. “This is my grandmother’s threshing table,” said K Hamilton in Wisconsin, sitting at a sturdy dining room table where workers ate during harvest season at her family’s farm. In the center rests a split plank of cherry the length of a baguette, polished to a high sheen. It’s cut from one of the first logs the couple found on the site, an everyday symbol that reminds them daily of the magic of their cabin.

With luck, some things will never change.