A Tangible Connection: House on Haliburton Lake

This upscale cottage project by The Ventin Group Architects Ltd. (+VG) links the exterior to the interior, visually and spatially.

Photography by David Whittaker

An entry sequence of anticipation and surprise is the first of many striking impressions in this residence by The Ventin Group Architects Ltd. (+VG) that overlooks Haliburton Lake on a remote site in Central Ontario near Algonquin Park. The plan’s long, narrow footprint gives lake views to most of the principal rooms while allowing the house to fit into the hillside without creating an incongruously tall building on the lake side.

“We try to hug down when we design a lakeside cottage,” says architect Peter Berton, +VG Partner-in-charge and one of Canada’s most prolific designers of upscale country houses. “The cottage should seem to rise naturally out the ground and nestle under the surrounding trees.”

Approaching the 7,742-sq.-ft. structure, visitors pass by a series of voids: the first two are lightwells while the third, conveniently near the door, is a niche with shelves for stacking firewood, a trademark of Berton-designed houses. “The design should take everyday things into account,” he says. “When you drive in the country, there is nothing more beautiful than seeing stacked rows of firewood. Wood storage can form an outdoor wall as pretty as a stone wall.”


When the door opens, two more design theme becomes evident. First, the materials palette continues seamlessly indoors and out, helping draw the eye to the views outside. Second, principal rooms flow openly, one to the other, in the best traditions of open-plan modernism. Indeed, the living room, dining room and kitchen comprise a great room. Still, its constituent parts are not so undelineated as to feel like a big blob. A freestanding island counter partitions the dining room from the living room without making the space feel closed in. “You want to feel that you are in a room, yet at one with the outdoors,” Berton says.

While principal rooms have lake views, the exception is the cozy and intimate games room, with its darker view into the woods. “This is where the client and guests go after dinner to sit and enjoy a glass of port,” he says.

+VG’s Ty Murray, Architectural Designer and Lead Project Coordinator, worked with Berton on the house. “We wanted to bring the exterior inside and convey that living in the house feels like participation in the natural setting rather than living apart from it,” he says.

To that end, he explains, the design features a series of pavilions marching along the hillside-facing elevation. They are finished in dark-grey panels of Swisspearl, a maintenance-free, indoor-outdoor cementitious cladding material.

“These pavilions contain functional program elements like storage, laundry and mud room,” Murray says. “Our design elaborates on not only carrying the pavilions inside through the building envelope, but also down through the floorplate, where the lightwells cut through the floor and the Swisspearl descends to the basement. This architectural move serves tangibly to connect the exterior to the interior, visually and spatially. “The concept demands a hierarchy of spatially and acoustically separated rooms, from the open-concept living room, dining room and kitchen, to the two-storey cube containing the self-contained games room on the upper level and the home theatre below.” Like the exercise room, which is also on the lower level, the theatre can be sealed off acoustically from the rest of the house.

Several measures minimize distractions that would draw attention away from the impressive views. For instance, the upper level’s sloping roof deck rests on paired, rather than single, Douglas fir rafters. Downlights tuck unobtrusively into the hollows between the beam pairs. The rafters’ regular rhythmic spacing animates the ceiling plane while evoking the site’s tree canopy. “Putting a light on a sloping ceiling is problematic,” Berton says. “The usual solution is to hang a pendant, but the way they meet the ceiling is often awkward.”

On this project, he avoids pendants except for a trio of luminaires suspended over the dining table, where they symbolically replace the traditional room chandelier. Functionally, they serve as accent lighting close to the plates while permitting a low ambient light level to ensure that diners enjoy the last glimmers of the twilit view.

In front of windows, a narrow dropped-floor sector conceals heat registers and electric outlets. To room occupants, the dropped sector, like the catch basin wrapping around an infinity pool, lies just beyond, below and out of sight. The raised blinds, meanwhile, tuck away behind the exposed steel beam.

Further to reduce distractions, the screened porch is located at the end of the house, adjacent to the living room rather than in front of it as per the country-cottage stereotype. “Traditionally, screen porches are a mask on the building, darkening the rooms with a black bug screen that blocks the view,” Berton says. “Porches belong off to the side, where they create cross ventilation rather than block the view and the light.”

This country house also runs against type in its minimalist modernist aesthetic, he adds. “The client likes the simple, clean modern look. They don’t like overdone interior design. They don’t clutter things up with tchotchkes.

“But they don’t like cold minimalism either; there’s a difference. That’s why clients come to us, because they like the combination of modern design with warmth, thanks to the natural materials and the connection to the exterior in a clean way.” The pavilions combine minimalism with avoidance of distractions by hiding the clutter of laundry and cloak, mud and powder rooms behind those austere dark Swisspearl walls.

“The pods are very geometric,” Berton says. “They read as a series of buildings under one roof.” In doing so, the pavilions’ simplicity and lack of details indicating scale create a subtle feeling of ambiguity that evokes the abstracted grandeur and hint of surrealism associated with the work of Swiss architect Mario Botta—the final surprise in this unusual lakeside cottage.