One of the pleasures of visiting a Canadian cottage, no matter how large or small the building, is having the physical and mental space to appreciate nature in all its details: the sight of a heron swooping across the lake, the feel of cool water on toes dangling from the edge of a dock.
That effect can be intensified when the cottage itself has been crafted specifically to reflect the nuances of its site.
A recently built 269-square-metre home away from home in Ontario’s Kawartha Highlands accomplishes exactly that. It sits on Precambrian granite, which slopes down toward the water. One side faces a thick forest. Clad in a charred black skin of shou sugi ban cedar, it appears as weighty and solid as a stone on a hiking trail. The opposite side is mostly glass, as light and reflective as the lake that lies to the south.
When Meg Graham and Will Elsworthy (principals at the Toronto architecture and design firm Superkül, where Graham is a partner alongside Andre D’Elia) started to design the cottage, they paid close attention to everything around them. “To paraphrase Elizabeth Diller, we come to projects with no agenda or preconceived notions of what they’re going to look like,” says Graham. “We observe, we listen, with a completely open mind.”
One particularity they noted was that deer had denuded the bases of many of the site’s trees. A flaw? Maybe — but one that afforded clear views through the property, framing what would become the crisp form of the architecture.
The semi-bareness of the woods also revealed another quirk: a series of wooden birdhouses built by a past owner and mounted to trees and posts. The little shelters, which had simple peaked roofs and uncomplicated shapes, inspired an underlying metaphor for the cottage as a place to nest, rest and find joyful refuge in the elements.
That spark of inspiration is manifest on approach. Guests enter by way of a long, open-air promenade. It is lined on one side by burnt cedar slats that stand next to one another like a line of sparse trees. On the other side, oiled white cedar siding has an inviting warmth.
Inside the cottage, an enveloping vestibule, all in flat-cut white oak, sweeps around like a cozy embrace — a bit like a minimalist bird’s nest as imagined by Donald Judd. The crown of the room is an operable skylight that highlights both the loftiness of the space and the beauty of the clouds soaring high, high above.
The site itself slopes significantly downhill toward the water from the point of entry by the driveway. That means guests actually enter into the upper level, where the uncomplicated bedrooms have a sense of serene at-oneness with the environment — one room with bunks for kids and three others equipped for parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.
This connection to nature is nowhere more evident than in the owners’ quarters, which, like the entry, are lined in flat-cut white oak. “It’s rubbed in an oil that maintains its colour and highlights the grain,” says Elsworthy. “You see a lot of quarter-sawn white oak in homes these days. But this cut is a bit more rustic.”
In the primary bedroom, both the bed and bath (a custom oak tub shipped from Japan) look out toward the water through large operable windows. They allow the site’s frequent breezes to pass through, naturally ventilating the space during the long summer months and reducing reliance on air conditioning (the operable skylight in the nearby vestibule also helps with passive ventilation).
Likewise, in the open living-dining-eating space on the lower level, the floor-to-ceiling sliding doors shift away, creating the sense of being on a covered patio rather than within the solid walls of a home. Here, some of the materials echo the earthly surroundings, such as the blackened steel that wraps the fireplace and the stone-coloured concrete floor underfoot.
In this space, without any distracting city noises, it’s almost impossible to feel anything but connected to the natural world. The sound of water lapping on the shore can be heard from the softly textured felt-topped bench in the dining area. Listen closely and you might catch the sound and sight of a red-headed woodpecker pecking at a tree, rhythmically, over and over, unbothered, completely at home.
Drawing on the natural setting in Ontario’s Kawartha Highlands, Superkül devises the perfect summer retreat.