This is our annual vacation home issue—one we particularly look forward to every year. There's something different, or should be, about a house designed from the ground up as an escape from the routine and complexity of everyday life. The best vacation homes subtly pare down the program to find the sweet spot of utility and delight. They minimize extraneous space and maximize our interactions with the outdoors and each other.

“The Shack” follows this formula almost to an extreme. And for that reason, it's captured the attention and imagination of quite a few design editors and architects. Just one room, elevated off the ground and removed from the power grid and public water supply, the house occupies a tiny fraction of architect/owner Jeffery Broadhurst's 27 acres of countryside near Washington, D.C. A garage door opens the single room to a deck almost as big as the house. There's a rain barrel for an outdoor shower, a wood stove for cooking and heating, and cross-ventilation for cooling. It's like camping, without having to sleep on the ground. The structure is shelter reduced to basic necessities. The pleasure is in the site itself—the bucolic location and the disconnection from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Many vacation homes used to be this simple. A hunting cabin in the woods; a summer cottage on the beach. Maybe, if you were lucky, there was propane for cooking and heating, a well for water, and electricity.

But, over the course of years and accelerated by the housing boom, our expectations of what a vacation home should look like and how it should live have changed. We've come to think of these places truly as second homes, meant to contain all of the conveniences, distractions, and luxuries of our primary residences. And so our guests won't intrude upon our idylls, we've added suites for them, with dedicated bedrooms and bathrooms. We don't even need to know they're there.

But what's fun about that? If the only difference between your getaway home and your city house is the view, why consume the carbon to get there?

Which brings me to the next consideration: sustainability. Certainly, the overblown second home is not a practical model for a resource-strained future. And what about the “not-so-big” vacation retreat? We show The Shack in our Green Piece department as an example of sustainable design. But we don't delve into the question of whether a vacation house should ever earn full (or even partial) credit as a green building.

By definition, a second house is more than you need. You consume more land, resources, and energy than you need to in building and maintaining it. And you expend more energy than you need to in traveling back and forth to stay there.

Yes, a vacation home is undeniably excessive. No one needs one, and yet most of us want one. They fill a special longing in our souls for a slower pace and a closer relationship with family, friends, and the natural world. In a way, vacation places like The Shack may serve an important role in driving awareness of the environment and its fragilities.

The experience of life distilled to its essentials by these simple buildings may inspire us to trim the excesses we find elsewhere in our world. If they can do that, perhaps they'll justify their existence. If not, these interludes of stillness in our hectic lives are just another debt we'll owe to the future.

Comments? E-mail: S. Claire Conroy at