Design & DIY

This charming bunkie is actually a functioning bird house

Living space
100 sq. ft.

Why we love it
It’s just so cool— instead of taking habitat away by building, this designer found a way to add it.

If this charming little hut in the woods reminds you of a bird feeder, you’re onto something. The one-room, 100-sq.-ft. hut was built to be not much larger than the king-sized bed that’s inside it. But it’s also so much more than a quiet place to sleep in the woods.

Mark Erickson built the hut in 2017 on his family’s cottage property in Windermere, B.C.—a lakeside getaway that’s just a three-hour drive from where he lives in Calgary. The original two-room rustic cabin on the site has been a well-loved retreat for Mark’s family since his grandparents bought the lot in the 1960s. “We’ve been going all my life,” he says. “Every summer, I spend a good month out there, and in a lot of ways, I consider it more home than Calgary.”

Mark co-founded the design-build firm Studio North, and he can trace his path to becoming a designer back to that little rustic cabin and his relationship with his grandfather. “My grandpa taught me how to fish and how to build things out of wood,” he says. “I had a lot of my life lessons there—and it’s where I found my passion and love for nature.”

Once he started travelling to Windermere with his partner, Maria (and now, a two-year-old son, Philip), Mark wanted to create more sleeping space for the family. And when a designer gets to be their own client, that’s when the fun begins. This little hut, he realized, could give back to the environment he loved. “Growing up, I would always birdwatch with my grandpa,” he says. “You know, sit on the porch and look at the different birds that would come through the property, and I got to know all of the names and the calls.” 

Channelling his inner child, he says, he thought back on the forts he’d make to birdwatch in the woods. This build could be a grown-up version of those forts, but he’d take it one step further by sharing the space with the birds themselves—even prioritizing them by placing a dozen species-specific bird boxes on the hut’s facade. “It’s more of a place for birds than it is for people,” says Mark. “So, in a way, it’s out there for nature and for however the birds wish to inhabit it.” 

Mark scouted out the perfect spot on the property: a hillside that would allow for the height he needed to build the hut off the ground. He’d build it into the hill by constructing a platform to support the rear, with stilts to suspend it above the ground at the front.

Of course, as someone who builds thoughtful, well-planned homes for a living, it’s no surprise that Mark dug into the research to make sure the bird houses would be smartly designed too. Chickadees, nuthatches, and other songbirds prefer to nest lower to the ground, where they take advantage of natural cavities in trees and dense shrubbery, so Mark added four six-by-eight-inch boxes into the design, placing them about 10 feet from the ground. Larger birds, such as pileated woodpeckers (one of his favourites), go for the view: they look for nests higher in the tree canopy, so Mark placed a box for them at the 20-foot mark. In the end, mapping out where each specific box should be in terms of height led to the design of the hut itself, he explains. “It’s whimsical and playful. And inhabiting that space, you almost feel like a bird yourself.”

Much like he was constructing a nest, he foraged for the materials that he required. Mark and his dad had recently rebuilt a deck for the existing cabin, and so he was able to reclaim the wood from the original deck and use it for the hut’s platform and cladding. And on a hike through the woods, he found a forest fire-ravaged stand of lodgepole pines. They were dead, but still standing straight as arrows—and they were perfect for the stilts that he’d envisioned as part of the hut’s support structure.

The crossed stilts have a hinge point where they meet, and this mechanism contributes to a bird-like feeling while you’re inside: “At the base, it feels really sturdy, but then as you get further out, it gets to be shakier and more precarious,” says Mark. “It’s almost like you’re walking out onto a branch.”

The roof is made from leftover polycarbonate from one of Studio North’s other projects. Its translucent nature means that the canopy of trees overhead is visible to anyone lying in bed. “The branches are rustling, and you can hear all the birds, the trees—it’s really quite nice,” he says. “Instead of putting lights inside, we strung lights from tree to tree just above the hut.” Thanks to the translucent roof, that’s enough to illuminate the space. 

For a lifelong birder like Mark, the biggest reward was not only the finished hut, but also to see nature claim the space just as he’d designed it. “When I first built it, I sat and watched with a beer in my hand to see what was going to happen,” says Mark. “And this big pileated woodpecker came out of nowhere, stuck his head in the top hole, and then went inside. And I thought, okay, that’s enough for me. This is all worth it.” 

Anicka Quin is the Editorial Director at Western Living and Vancouver magazines.

This story originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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