When designer Kelsey Duda stumbled across a piece of land for sale on Craigslist, located in Elk Rapids, Michigan, directly across from a county park with beach access to Lake Michigan, she snapped it up. It was a perfect fit for her dream project: a vacation rental constructed from the ground up. “I set out to build a home that would function as a small hotel concept, because I really wanted to break into hospitality design and I didn’t know how else to make it happen,” says Duda. 

Elk Rapids is a sleepy town nine months out of the year; then when summer hits, visitors flock to the area to experience its crystal-clear lakes, small-town charm, and family-friendly beaches. But for such a popular tourist destination, there’s a surprising lack of hotels that offer the type of spaces and experiences common to other hot spots—think: sauna rentals or an elevated kitchen with an island fit for entertaining. Duda sensed an opportunity, but she couldn’t do it alone.

Building a home from scratch during the pandemic was no easy feat, and after numerous material delays and not seeing eye to eye with contractors, Duda’s parents came to the rescue. They drove round-trip eight hours from Detroit nearly every weekend of 2020 to help her frame, paint trim, and everything in between. During the week, her naturally handy dad would watch YouTube videos to learn the skills he needed for the next phase, while Duda acted as his assistant as well as project manager, general contractor, and interior designer. “I didn’t have time to engage an architect, and I didn’t want to wait, so I drew up the plans myself,” says Duda with a laugh. “I couldn’t think beyond a rectangle, so that was my constraint.” Fortunately a simple, one-story layout with few walls is more budget-friendly than complex, multistory designs. “I’m so proud of what we built together,” she adds.

The big challenge with any new build comes after the drywall has been installed: it’s bringing in objects, textures, finishes, and patinas that create interest and a sense of history. Coating much of the interior with Color Atelier’s limewash paint immediately lent depth and age to the space. Duda worked with local artisans to bring more complex design ideas to life, like the white oak kitchen island by Wolf Wood Co. that features open shelves where she can display handmade ceramics. As for furniture, the interior is an expertly curated mix of thrifted pieces. The vintage sofa reupholstered in rust velvet and the Baker twin beds were both Chairish finds, while the pair of Kurt Versen sconces in the living room (her favorite score) was $42 at a local antiques shop. The only new thing in the house is the dining table from Stoffer Home.

A lot of vacation rentals feel like an afterthought, but Duda designed this home specifically with her guests in mind. “There is so much more to a space than how it looks. There’s the tactile moments, those items you touch throughout the day—light switches, doorknobs, faucets. The details make such a difference,” she explains. Even carving out an arched niche for a plant in the shower makes the otherwise routine spot feel memorable. While custom details like the coffee-bar nook pushed the project over budget, the entire home still came together for under $300,000. 

An old postcard advertising the Ferndale Motel, which used to reside on the property, was the inspiration for the home’s name: Fernhaus. “Whenever I’m designing a brand or concept, I start with the history of the place and land as a source of inspiration,” says Duda. She chose the Instagram handle @_fernhaus and softly launched in December 2020, inviting a handful of interested guests via DM to test the experience. Shortly after the trial run, she listed the space on Airbnb, and this past summer she connected with two local investors to form a hospitality group called Fernhaus Studio, with a mission to elevate northern Michigan’s offerings (they currently have several lodging and F&B concepts in the works that are slated to debut in 2022). And to think it all started on Craigslist.

The Goods

Go-to vintage shop: With two locations in the Traverse City area, there’s always some treasure to come home with from Wilson.

Favorite source for gardening supplies: Darling Botanical is a really beautiful local plant shop.

Where I buy decor online: Chairish. I love the thrill of the hunt, and it’s so much more economical and sustainable than shopping new.

Object in my home that gets the most use: My ceramic cups by local artist Ben Maier. They are perfect for coffee, wine, and even flowers or toothbrushes. 

Biggest splurge: My last-minute white oak coffee bar from Wolf Wood Co. The space was meant to be a closet, but I decided it would be nice for my guests to have a dedicated (and beautiful) spot for beverages. 

Nicest contractor I’ve ever met: Does my dad count? 

Electrician/plumber who can do no wrong: My neighbor, Carl Fromholz, and his wife, Lisa Grise, who own the Paradise Pines rentals next door, helped me remedy some complex problems.

Other highly recommended craftspeople:

 Also, a major shout-out to Grace Start and Sue Duyser for being my sounding boards, design consultants, and the best of friends throughout this whole process.

The one thing I wish I knew before renovating: If I could go back in time, I’d trust my gut. Almost all the decisions I landed on were my first ideas.