Colin and Justin let in the light with these design tips

Photo by Angus Rowe Macpherson

Updated August 15, 2018

For the longest time, we’ve had a theory about Canadian cottagers. We reckoned they — you guys — were either a cult of vampires or direct descendants of some lost tribe of mole people. This observation was fuelled, in part, by numerous trips to lakeside cabins where natural illumination was compromised, courtesy of tiny windows, poor electrics and, well, just plain old dingy decor. Stranger still is the fact that many of the cottages we endured—sorry, enjoyed—sat on incredible landscape (where nature truly shines) and where neighbours were far enough away to ensure total privacy.

When we took possession of our own wee bolthole, a diamond in the rough nestled on a beautiful, glass­-like lake in Muskoka, we were somewhat con­ founded by miniature windows and thick log walls, elements which combined to create a seriously gloomy atmosphere. With just one main­-floor door (at the side of the house) and only two small lakeside windows, our connection to the water was limited. And so, for the first few weeks of ownership, we sat squinting in the darkness, imagining what might be. Potential, you see, is always a primary C&J pursuit, no matter the project.

Increasing light levels makes a huge difference to functionality, mood, and atmosphere. We endeavour during day­-to-­day projects to amplify light at every turn. There are loads of ways, big and small, to do this. Removing curtains, for example, if they’re suffocating a picture window, and replacing with diaphanous blinds to welcome in (yet diffuse) light is a no-­brainer. Even installing a simple dimmer switch can be a low­-cost game changer. At our cottage, we made several small—and not so small—changes to the design and decor to bring in light.

Photo by Angus Rowe Macpherson

New doors, new view, new cottage

Blimey! What were the original architects thinking when they installed only two small windows at the front of the cottage? Not only was the sublime vista towards our lake totally hidden, but the lack of windows made the entire first floor of the cottage remote, dark, and disconnected. We needed a major fix. So, the windows came out and in their place went three sets of French doors. Hey, presto, job done! Our interior now feels totally connected to the great outdoors. Hoo—flippin’—rah! Fancy tackling a job like this? Talk to the local township about your plans. Involving inspectors from the get­-go actually works in your favour as they will advise on what is—and what isn’t—possible for your property from a permitting point of view.

Our next step was to engage a structural engineer to be sure that the proposed works wouldn’t cause the whole cabin to collapse. Our chap confirmed that the house was well constructed (and the existing horizontal logs above the win­dows, where the doors would be, were incredibly strong), but he recommended adding steel supports between the doors as a belt-­and­b-races tactic. This infor­mation harvested, we submitted plans to the township…and held our breath. Thankfully, without significant delay, we received full approval. Onwards!

Without further ado, our contractor, using a (terrifying!) chainsaw, cut the aperture according to our engineer’s exacting specifications. This done, he inserted the steel supports and built a wooden frame to conceal them. We had our doors fitted within 24 hours so we only had to be open to the elements for the minimum time possible. In the interim, plastic sheeting kept us dry and relatively bug free.

When we saw the results, we almost levitated with excitement. It was the potential view to the lake, after all, that made us love the cottage in the first place. And it was liberated. Yay! This project cost about $12,000 and was worth every penny: Our interior now feels totally connected to the great outdoors.

Add a little style to your stairs

Updating fixed features is a surefire way to modernize space and add value into the bargain. The main-floor banisters were dated and a little predictable: horizontal slats made of pine timber. We swapped out the wood for glass panels, which allowed us to forgo handrails. This project was a key part of the main­-floor reno. As they were, in the farthest corner from the French doors, the stairs suffered abject light deprivation. Now, fully retooled, they take advantage of light that floods from the new doors and from the windows above. Can you tackle a job like this yourself? In a word, no. Sizing the glass and securing it in place on tensioned brackets requires expert knowledge, templating skills, and an armoury of tools. Our costs were about $2,000, but yours would depend on your project’s configuration and the staircase size.

Colin & Justin will be back with a brand new documentary show, Great Canadian Cottages, coming this Fall only on Cottage Life

Featured Video