Refuge in Concrete

Using the decrepit log cabin as mold, Swiss architect Selina Walder sculpts a minimalist mountain retreat in concrete, fossilizing the texture and character of the historic hut that once stood in its sylvan spot on the meadow. From the trail, hikers may mistake Refugi Lieptgas for the inconspicuous log cabin that had stood in this very spot for decades. Yet, at second glance, the tiny refuge tucked against boulders at the edge of the Flims forest in the Swiss Canton of Graubünden reveals itself as the negative imprint of the old structure. The stunning effect of the cabin cast in concrete is incongruously sublime; details like the wood grain, the cracks, the door lock set in stone are all true impressions of the past.

Refugi Lieptgas, detail in concrete

Stonewalled Design

The Maiensäss mouldering on the mountain meadow had long served its purpose of sheltering pastoralists during grazing season. Years back, Guido Casty, the 1974 bobsledding FIBT World-Championship silver medalist and local restaurateur who owns the property, had planned to replace the crumbling herder’s hut with a new cabin he could rent out to vacationers. The building permit was denied. The new design needed to somehow incorporate the existing structure. He gave it a rest.

When his itch to tackle the old cabin returned, Casty tasked an architect friend in Basel with a new plan that would comply with the community’s stipulations. Since the project was small and the architect was two and a half hours away, Casty asked Selina Walder of the local Nickisch Sano Walder Architekten to manage the construction. The Flims native had been waitressing for him for many years and graduated from the renowned Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio, where she had studied architecture under Valerio Olgiati, one of Switzerland’s foremost modern architects.

Walder agreed but didn’t like the design she was handed from the Basel architect. The twist: The building authorities had miscommunicated the structure’s prescribed maximum footprint. As a quasi apology, the local architect was allowed to rebuild from scratch, as long as her plan adhered to the original square footage, and the new design portrayed the character of the old log cabin.

What did that mean? “I struggled with that provision,” Walder admits. “Did I need to rebuild with wood?” She inquired further but was discouraged from asking too many questions that would only have to be addressed with more rules.

Walder’s reluctance to use wood lingered. “The spot was mossy, woodsy, musty,” she remembers. “You could tell the old log cabin hadn’t taken well to sitting on the forest floor.” Besides, the original had been constructed from surrounding trees. And today’s way of driving to the lumber yard and transporting the wood back to this unspoiled spot at the forest’s edge didn’t seem appropriate to her.

“The spot was mossy, woodsy, musty. You could tell the old log cabin hadn’t taken well to sitting on the forest floor.”

Serenity set in stone

Thus, the fossilization idea was born. “I did love the sylvan setting back in there, where the old cabin cowered against the boulders,” Walder says. “I wanted to preserve that, not fuss about a new design. I wanted everything to be the way it was. Except, I didn’t want to rebuild in wood.” Her answer was to cast a negative imprint of what once was, from concrete, to create a simple refuge that—now literally—mirrored the character of the derelict log cabin.

The young architect intended to capture this special place, the woods she had loved since childhood. “I wanted people staying at the cabin to understand the forest in all its beauty, all its fascination, all its facets.” In fall, for example, the new cabin's round skylight gives view to the vermillion crowns of the beech trees above. The main room’s large window is purposefully set low to provide an ideal view over the clearing when sitting at the table. “Deer come out of the woods at dusk. It’s very fairytale-like.”

“I wanted everything to be the way it was. Except, I didn’t want to rebuild in wood.”

Photo by Gaudenz Danuser

Concrete continuance

Walder knew of artists who sculpted works of art from the composite, and she had built countless concrete models in architecture school. While the material wasn’t completely foreign to her, she didn’t know what would happen on site. Casting a concrete shell from the mold of an existing log cabin was an experiment she and, luckily, the builder were curious to dare.

To visualize the construction process for herself and to be able to articulate the steps to her crew, the architect built a model from little sticks and cast it in concrete.

The real hut was set aside by a crane and stripped of anything that wasn’t part of the structure: small laths, twigs, and rocks that inhabitants had stuffed between the logs to chink the walls. The gaps between the logs were then filled with cut-to-fit slats to gain an even leading edge and prevent the concrete mixture from leaking out. Once the foundation was finished, the old-cabin-turned-mold was heaved back in place. The builders constructed the inside of the mold structure with standard form boards. The new cabin was poured in place. After the concrete hardened, the old log cabin was removed and deconstructed.

rifugi lieptgas drawings

Poured patina

The original cabin not only lent the new structure its form but also gave it marvelous detailing, most notably a beautiful wood-grain pattern, now preserved in time and stone. The concrete was even the same shade of gray as the old cabin’s weathered wood. The logs left behind a relief ideal for moss to take root and flourish again as it once had.

Walder couldn’t have envisioned all the fascinating effects in advance. “We spent so much time worrying about the construction itself. Will the concrete cling to the cracks in the old logs? Will the corners crumble off?” she remembers wondering. “I was positively surprised and really happy how precise this sculpture turned out.”

Inside, two worlds

Walder decided early on to split the living space into two levels. “Sleeping and living in one room inevitably leads to a camping atmosphere,” she says. The architect aimed instead at designing a much more luxurious retreat with two distinct worlds, upstairs and downstairs.

She wanted guests to feel sheltered in the bedroom below, tucked away in a cave rather than feeling trapped. Thus, she added a large window above the bathtub and a door that leads directly into the forest. “The world of rocks and roots back there reminds me of Alice in Wonderland,” Walder says. “Another door into another kingdom.”

Photo by Ralph Feiner

Warm concrete

Concrete may seem to be a debatable material for a cozy cabin in the woods. For Walder, it was the right choice. “The forest in Flims is scattered with the kind of boulders you see from the lower level of the cabin. It’s what makes this area so magical: the caves, the moss-covered rocks. Concrete is not much different. It’s man-made stone. To me, it fits quite well into the setting.”

In fact, some interior features are cast in concrete as well: a pedestal with bathtub and a lavabo on the lower level, and a solid bench along the entire wall beneath the large window on the main floor.

“People are always afraid concrete would be cold,” Walder says. The concrete inside Refugi Lieptgas is actually heated with an under-slab radiant heating system that even loops through the tub and the bench. The concept would not work for a private cabin that’s used only occasionally, because the concrete takes a long time to warm up. With the rental cabin booked solid, however, the stone can continually retain its warmth.

Photo by Ralph Feiner

Taking refuge

Literally left without a roof over their heads during the remodel of their own house last fall, Walder and her partner, Georg Nickisch, took refuge at Refugi Lieptgas for a week with their infant daughter and the dog. The architect is pleased with her firsthand experience. “Living there feels very cozy, very protected and private—and at the same time elevated,” she reminisces. “Everything is tiny, but you don’t feel the smallness. You’re in your own small kingdom, separated from the world.” △

"Living there feels very cozy, very protected and private—and at the same time elevated.”