Design & DIY

This contemporary cabin blends traditional building smarts with new green ideas

Ian MacDonald cottage Paul Orenstein

Standing at the helm of his modest wood-trimmed motorboat, Ian MacDonald navigates the route to his Georgian Bay, Ont., cottage through narrow channels and past barren rocky islands with the offhand calm of intimate familiarity. The ride takes 45 minutes, but even as we pitch and rock in the swells of an open, choppy stretch of water, he never breaks with an easy tour guide’s banter, describing each landmark and highlight.

He steers the boat into a narrow inlet called Go Home Bay, where the 64-year-old Toronto architect has been a regular visitor since he was in his early twenties. He soon turns again, into the small bay at the back of the channel where his own cottage sits on a tall outcrop of Canadian Shield. What strikes you first about the cottage is how it doesn’t strike you at all, how hard it is to even find in the landscape. The surroundings are quintessential Shield country, simple, stark, and breathtaking, all low, rounded rock and wind-bent pines. It looks like a Group of Seven scene, and for good reason—this location was a frequent subject of their work. Several members spent time painting landscapes while staying at one of the area’s first cottages, a simple dwelling, now more than one hundred years old, on an island nearby, and several murals from that cottage are now in the National Gallery.

On our way from the marina, Ian pointed out examples of a recent cottage design trend that he calls the “Ranger Smith tower.” This is an essentially ornamental second- or third-storey extension to a cottage’s roofline, often less than a storey high, seemingly in homage to a forest ranger’s elevated guard tower. It’s a sort of exclamation point on the structure, its windows providing some light but serving no other obvious function. Ian concedes that the Ranger Smith tower has become popular simply because people like the way it looks, but its ubiquity gets him fuming. There must be a dozen of these towers between the marina and his own cottage, and his gaze across this timeless landscape is assaulted anew by each one every time he navigates his small boat along the route.

“They have this unintended consequence of collapsing the scale of the place we care about,” he says. “A landscape that is extremely powerful and beautiful—but also quite fragile—is easily disrupted. Suddenly, it doesn’t look wild, and it doesn’t look powerful.”

It’s a valid argument: when he points out a Ranger Smith tower poking above the treeline in the foreground of a broad Georgian Bay horizon, the natural landscape seems diminished.

In his own designs, Ian obsesses over how a building or an addition fits into the landscape, both how it looks alongside the traditional architecture of the place and how it embraces the natural features of the site. When he gives presentations to the local cottage owners’ association, the Ranger Smith towers are his go-to example of size for its own sake and design with disregard for context, however unintended it might have been. He talks about scale and future development and uses a photo of a stretch of Georgian Bay coast in its current state, but Photoshopped so that every cottage is a repeat of one of the largest new structures, a mega-cottage, to show how cluttered the bay could soon become. He contrasts this scenario with photos of typical century-old cottages. “They were modest,” he says. “And they had a tradition of working in that landscape. They were generally dark in colour. They were generally monochromatic. They just didn’t have a lot of presence. Now those new places are built more as objects that are glazed on the perimeter, and they reflect light, and they’re illuminated at night. And they have a lot more presence in the landscape than cottages once did.”

Ian’s first cottage on Go Home Bay was a simple old bungalow, built in 1967. He and his wife, Diane MacDiarmid, bought the place in the early 1990s, just after the birth of their first son—when it was no longer practical to share their friends’ cottages on the bay, as he had been doing since the 1970s, and as they had been doing together since the mid-’80s. The lot’s lake frontage is mostly steep-faced rock, so it was one of the last lots developed, and the cottage wasn’t built to last. When it came time to replace it, in 2013, Ian designed the new dwelling himself, aiming to strike just the right balance between those quaint, cozy old cabins and a thoroughly modern dwelling. “I wanted something,” he says, “that didn’t have enough presence to overwhelm the landscape as viewed from the water.”


Ian’s modest approach works. The new cottage, which sits, like the original one, on top of a tall slab of Canadian Shield rock, can barely be seen among the trees and rock and forest shadow as you approach the site from the water. The first full view of it comes when you are looking up from his dock, which is in behind the cottage. Ian calls it a “cabin” in his portfolio, but a rustic cabin it is not—the design is thoroughly contemporary. The cottage is a flat, black, modernist rectangle—“a really crisp little modern box,” he calls it—which won a Design Excellence Award from the Ontario Association of Architects in 2016. “We kept it low,” Ian says. “We put a green roof on it. We made it dark. It’s monochromatic. There’s a porch that casts shadows onto the wall. And the whole thing just sits up there as a kind of abstract dark thing in the shade of the forest. I like the idea of a cabin. We wanted to have it as small as possible.”

The simple little one-storey box is just 1,400 square feet, with 400 square feet of porch space—precisely the average size of traditional cottages on Go Home Bay. The interior nevertheless feels spacious and breezy, as you’d expect from its modern lines, but also cozy and welcoming, like a traditional cottage. The main living-dining space is a broad room with a panoramic view of the water through floor-to-ceiling windows, which give it an airy vibe even as the lower-than-usual ceilings (six feet, eight inches to the beam; another foot to the joists) prevent it from feeling cold. There are three bedrooms—a master bedroom, plus one small bedroom for each of his two sons, one out of university and now working and the other recently graduated.

Every detail, from the reading nook near the front entry—with a perfectly framed view of a lone pine—to the walk-out deck that runs the length of the main room, was designed to merge as gently as possible with the surrounding wilderness. “I feel like there’s a responsibility not to mess up a place like this,” he explains. Ian made his reputation as an architect on more imposing structures. In addition to upscale Toronto homes and large country houses and vacation properties in places such as Mulmur Township, Caledon, and Collingwood, he designed a retrofit to a faculty building at the University of Toronto and a renovation of the Boulevard Club on the Toronto waterfront. In every case, though, not messing up the place his designs will occupy has always been central to his work. In addition to using overtly eco-conscious materials and hyper-efficient heating and cooling, Ian seeks out natural light and embraces the defining elements of the surrounding landscape. The signature feature of his cottage, for example, is the glass wall of the main room, which slides away to turn the entire living space into a screened porch.

“Most people think about buildings as objects,” he says, “but they don’t think about how they give structure to your occupation of a place. It’s about introducing views to people, framing views in a particular way. And not just how things look, but also how things sound. When you open up all the doors and all the walls here, and it becomes a screened porch, the crickets and the loons and the whippoorwill, the waves and the wind—you’re there.”

Ian strives to achieve what he calls “legibility”—a clear sense of a building’s place on Earth and how it came to be there. “Legibility is about reading a building as a piece of text,” he explains. “You should be able to look at it and understand what it is and what its purpose is. The story should be there.” He looks at nostalgic imitations of heritage architecture as an “admission of defeat—a building is a product of its time, and building methods are better now, so we should use those.” His designs instead attempt to guide their visitors through the dwelling like an author tells a story. Rather than making his cottage’s signature view visible in as much of the house as possible, for example, he creates drama and tension by hiding the view from the entryway and the front hallway. It reveals itself for the first time in full—a timeless Group of Seven arrangement of Shield rock, windblown trees, and black water—when you enter the cottage’s living room. “The view seems more remarkable precisely because it’s withheld,” he says.

Though sustainability is central to Ian’s design philosophy, it’s mostly embedded rather than overt. Instead of filling his cottage with green energy gadgets or obsessively tracking greenhouse gas emissions, Ian has gone green simply by making the most of his cottage’s location and its local resources, and by treading as lightly as possible on the stunning natural setting around it. The respect for nature’s wisdom is intrinsic in every aspect of the design. The glass wall that retracts and essentially converts the space into a breezy porch, for example, saves energy by eliminating the need for fans or air conditioning. The irrigated green roof helps keep the place cool, and every room has two openings, which facilitates airflow. And Ian wisely avoids both hobbit-hole kitsch and future-tech chill in the finished product. Above all, his cozy cottage embodies the simplicity that drives us to seek out the lakeshore in the first place. “The bigger places,” he says, “are at cross-purposes with the very reason people come to the cottage. I don’t go to Go Home Bay to sit in a room with drywall and hear the air conditioner.”

Rather than lending a feeling of sacrifice, of doing without, Ian MacDonald’s cottage raises the question over and over: why would you need anything more? In an age of getaways with Ranger Smith towers and square footages that would be on the large side in most suburban developments, it’s a question worth asking.


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