Cottage Design Principles from A to Z

Peter Berton, principal at the Toronto office of The Ventin Group Architects Ltd. (+VG), has a favourite anecdote about his sister-in-law, Linda Kash, of Second City, Waiting for Guffman and Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese angel fame.

It was her first visit to a cottage he had designed on Muskoka’s Little Lake Joseph. She walked through the deliberately unassuming entrance, then gave a little shriek at the unexpected impact of stepping out on to the rear deck. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Suddenly, she was thrust into this fantasy world of a five-mile lake view,” Berton recalls. “Being an actor, she grasped the dramatic effect.”

The cottage poetically captures what Alexander Pope called the genius loci, the spirit of the place. The deck leads down to a viewing platform with the planks oriented to form a diamond-shaped focal point. The roof’s deep overhang and the angled stairs terracing down frame a windswept evergreen standing sentry in the foreground like a living tableau of The Jack Pine, the oil painting by Tom Thomson hanging in the National Gallery of Canada that is one of the country’s most widely recognized and reproduced artworks.

In the picturesque Ontario vacation land east of Georgian Bay, Berton has created dozens of cottages on prime real estate overlooking Muskoka’s three interconnected lakes of Rosseau, Joseph and Muskoka. Not to mention the Lake Joseph Club and Huntsville’s Grandview Resort.

At the time of the Grandview job, Berton was a partner in the Thom Partnership. Ron Thom, who died in 1986, was the grand duke of Canadian architecture who famously said that “the building should make love to its site.” Indeed, his 1950s Vancouver houses, which seemingly grow out of the ground, helped define Canada’s West Coast Style. Distinguishing qualities include indigenous wood and rock inside and out, rough cedar beams, and Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese influences, such as long, low roof lines with deep overhangs. Also, respecting the contours of the site could produce odd-shaped rooms. So, Thom’s interiors featured custom-designed furniture and built-ins to optimize the use of the space.

As the inheritor of such artistic DNA, Berton enjoys working on that quintessential Canadian building type, the cottage. “A cottage is the symbolic divider between the world of the car and the wilderness,” he says. “As you cross the threshold, you should feel a transformation. You are leaving the business world, the highway traffic and your stress behind. You are entering a recreational world of the lake, the sunshine and the breeze.” His cottage commissions range from modest, three-bedroom bungalows to sprawling campus-style estates.

Herewith, in his own words, Berton reflects on cottage-design principles from A to Z.

Anticipation and surprise: Don’t give the whole story away as soon as you walk through the front door. The process of arrival and putting your things down is a sequence of suspense. I like to take people around a corner. The windows widen, the ceiling rises, the floor drops and the dramatic lake view pops out. It’s a design tool known as “compression and release.”

The entry sequence at the 6,338-square-foot Bridge House, overlooking Muskoka’s Lake Joseph, thrills first-time guests.

Boulders: Don’t level the site. Blasting may be necessary to fit the cottage in, but retain as many boulders as possible and build with them. Cottages can be erected on sites that were once considered unbuildable. I deal with the slope by cutting the house right into the hillside. This can result in a cottage with levels that are lower than the entry, but minimizes the use of stilts.

Cars: In an ideal cottage design, no room looks onto the driveway. Once you enter, you should not have to see a car until you leave. Many people can use their boats to buy groceries and get around.

Discrete precincts: The old “shagproof” cottage, the one we went to as a kid, is history. The walls didn’t go up to the ceiling and you could hear everyone snoring. Now there’s a reaction from people who grew up with all that communal living and lack of privacy. The trend is to design the walls up to the ceilings, and, ideally, to make different precincts for the family, the guests and the children so that they don’t bother one another. At my Morgan Bay cottage, for instance, glass-covered walkways link separate bedroom pavilions.

Elevations: In urban areas, houses tend to be built with better materials on the front; brick facades and vinyl sides are common. A cottage, however, “sees” in every direction. In that sense, each elevation is the front elevation. Cottages usually turn their back to the street or driveway to exploit privacy, sunlight and lake views. The front becomes the back and vice versa. So, I refer to these elevations as the entry side and the view side.

Firewood art: The design should take everyday things into account. When you drive in Muskoka, there are often beautifully stacked rows of firewood. Wood storage can form an outdoor wall and is as elegant as a stone wall. It becomes part of the entry sequence to your world.

Elegant firewood storage along the entry sequence to the House on Haliburton Lake.

Gloomy: In a traditional Muskoka cottage, you need a flashlight to find your way around inside at noon because there are so many dark wood finishes and the cottage is surrounded by a verandah. In the old days, they didn’t have the ability to build big windows. Now we can get the grandeur of the traditional cottage without the customary stuffiness and gloom.

Hearth: The hearth is the centre of the living room. Make the fireplace big enough to take logs that will burn all through the night. Picture windows flanking the hearth allow you to enjoy the fire and the view at the same time.

Picture windows flank the imposing hearth in the house on Monyca Island, Skeleton Bay.

Indigenous materials: Building with natural, indigenous materials will make the cottage belong to the land. Using natural materials, not plastic, makes the cottage feel more substantial.

Loose: Rooms in a traditional city house are centred, symmetrical and have archways. Cottage rooms should be looser and less staid. Make the living and dining areas soaring, open great rooms, but not so undefined as to be amorphous. Public rooms should be delineated, but not necessarily with walls. A freestanding fireplace or island counter can partition a large space without making it feel closed-in. Lines in the floor or ceiling also reinforce the sense of a room that, while indoors, is still at one with the outdoors.

This view inside the 6,500-square-foot House on Bohemia Island exemplifies “hearth” and “loose” cottage design principles.

Make love to the site: The building should make love to the site, as Ron Thom said. Build in and around the site instead of leveling it. The cottage should seem to rise naturally out the ground and nestle under the surrounding trees.

Outdoors: You’re camping without any of the negative aspects of camping. You should feel like you are part of the outdoors throughout the year, but with all the comforts of home. In the city, you want tiny bathroom windows for privacy. In cottages, use large windows in the bathroom so that you can either look out directly onto the landscape or see it reflected in a big mirror.

At the Lake Muskoka Cottage, large windows in the bathroom enable the user to look out directly onto the landscape.

Presence: If the cottage’s design has integrity, the building will have a strong presence. This isn’t enhanced by cheap tricks, such as oval and round-top windows or fake muntin bars. So many new cottages are decorated with a kit of parts as if they were Potato Head. The trend is moving away from this kitsch to cleaner, more contemporary lines and honest design.

Quiet: A cottage should not be in your face. It should be quietly understated, with quiet forms and colours that allow it to blend with its environment. This doesn’t apply to boathouses, which usually interact differently with their sites.

Railings: Most cottages don’t exploit railings as a design opportunity. Owners usually make do with two by twos lag-screwed or toe-nailed into the deck. But railings are key to the exterior look. They should be clean and lacy to lighten the design, not chunky. I put a new twist in the railing each time. They need not be simply glass either, but appropriate to the design of the cottage.

Screened porches and stairs: Traditionally, screened porches are a mask on the building, darkening the rooms with a black bug screen that blocks the view. But screened porches are underrated; they are delightful spaces. They provide more outdoor covered area so that people can sit outside when it’s raining or mosquito-infested. Porches belong off to the side, where they create cross ventilation rather than block the view and the light. Stairs should be concealed and not appear as a daunting collection of posts and bracing blocking the cottage. The same applies to the ubiquitous barbecue.

At House on Haliburton Lake, 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.

Trees: Be reluctant to cut trees. From inside the cottage, you should see as many trees as possible. Put the building as close to the trees as you can without damaging them, even if you have to cut a hole in the roof overhang to do it. It makes your cottage look like it’s always been there, which adds a sense of belonging.

Understated: City houses strive for a grand entrance and so-called curb appeal. In a cottage, the entry elevation or façade should be understated to accentuate the dramatic impression when you walk through to the view side. An entry hall should be large and open. It should adjoin a mud room, as cottages usually have extensive outdoor clothing and equipment.

Wedding cake: Many Muskoka boathouses look like wedding cakes. That’s because the bylaw allows you to build a big lower level but limits the second floor to fewer square feet. The trick is to avoid the wedding cake effect with creative approaches to asymmetry using decks, walls and covered areas.

House on Monyca Island, Skeleton Bay, includes a new three slip boathouse with a 650-square-foot living space above. It avoids Muskoka boathouse wedding-cake stereotypes with creative approaches to asymmetry using decks, walls and covered areas.

Views: The wider the lot, the better, so that every room has a lake view. If this isn’t possible, the room should at least look out onto something interesting, such as trees and birds, not cars. And remember, a forest view can be delightful. The best view from a cottage I ever had was of an owl preening itself for 25 minutes, not three feet from my window. I had never seen an owl up close in the wild.

Zen: The art I enjoy the most is when the artist makes it look easy. Cottages are difficult and complex things, but if I can make the design look simple and calm, I’ve done my job.