What happens when you take an architect seeking some solitude, ask him to create a fairy tale, and then turn him loose in the quiet of the north woods?

Not much. Well, not much, that is, until you introduce a $36 boat winch from Northern Tool and Equipment.

Confused? Let me explain.

I spend the vast majority of my days happily working as an architect. I’ve been doing so for some 30-plus years, and I thoroughly enjoy nearly every aspect of the job. The work allows me to flex my creative muscles, and I get to work side-by-side with a talented group of design professionals as we tackle challenging – in some cases massive – projects.

As with many professions, what it means to be an architect is continuing to change and evolve: for example, I’ve had the opportunity to provide owner’s representative services for clients, illustrating a shift from “architect as designer” to “architect as leader.” These types of projects – these alternative services that we’re developing – are immensely rewarding, but require significant collaboration between multiple parties.

And all of this is fine. As I’ve said, I enjoy my job immensely. But sometimes… sometimes, I admit, I enjoy smaller projects. Projects that don’t require the need to coordinate anybody else.  Projects that allow me to see tangible results each day.

So when my wife and I decided to build a cabin “up north,” I saw an opportunity.

(By now you’re wondering where the boat winch fits in, right? Hold on… I’m getting to that.)

My wife Mary had a very definite idea of what the aesthetic of this cabin should be: cute. The cabin needed to be cute. So off I went in pursuit of cute. And as I learned more about what cute was, the vision of the cabin began to evolve. It became something more than cute… it became the type of cabin you’d see in a fairy tale, or if you were reading a children’s book. I used SketchUp – one of the design programs we use – to give this vision for a cute, fairy-tale cabin some shape.

We decided to build this cabin over the course of five years, tackling small, bite-size chunks when we could. Step one: there were 42 birch trees that needed to be cut down. And my plan was to do it by myself.

First the trees came down. Simple enough. But how do you lift up and move all the downed trees… trees that are, in some cases, 40 feet long and weigh as much as 500 lbs? Enter the $36 boat winch. I devised a system using two bicycle wheels and a couple two-by-fours along with the boat winch. Essentially it was a modified cart that used the boat winch to pull 12-foot logs onto the rails and then – using a long lever (those simple machines are really quite amazing) – tip the weight onto the wheels, and roll the logs away. And it didn’t require any committees, or detailed coordination between numerous individuals, or multiple moving parts. Simple. Just what I was looking for.

As the building progressed from clearing to construction, again and again that same winch came into play. I was able to lift 26’ beams up and into place – beams that weighed as much as 25 pounds per lineal foot – without any assistance. I was able to tip up 20’ walls, lift rafters to the second floor, and raise the OSB sheathing to the roof.  All on my own.

So there you are. It was three years ago that I moved the first felled tree using the bicycle-wheeled cart. Two years to go. And for right now the boat winch has been yet again reconfigured, chained to a pine tree to bring in the dock. Standing between me and the completion of the cabin are innumerable tasks. But all of them can be broken down into manageable pieces. And all of them can be completed by effectively employing simple tools designed specifically for the job.

I treasure the work I do as an architect. And I live for my time “up north” working on my own. The two are inextricably linked. The one makes me better at the other.

So, what happens when you let loose an architect in the north woods? Well, in my case, that architect found – and continues to find – balance.