Back in 2017, when Negar Reihani and Janusz Muniak purchased a cabin on an acreage in Sooke, B.C., for $699,000, they weren’t planning on enjoying it themselves. They had the former owners as full-time tenants in the main cottage and vague plans to renovate a rundown workshop on the property.
But in early 2020, their tenants gave notice. And then, in March, the pandemic hit: Janusz was laid off from his job, and interior designer Negar found her clients pausing their projects. “We thought, okay, if we stay in Vancouver in the apartment, we’re going to kill each other,” Negar says with a laugh. “So we better get on with doing something.” With the main cottage now empty, they had a home base from which they could finally renovate the workshop to be their own little getaway.
“At the beginning we thought we were just going to change the workshop ceiling and keep the rest as is,” says Negar. “Maybe put in a staircase.” But once the original T-bar ceiling came down, they noticed a damp smell that just wouldn’t go away. The couple discovered that the structure itself had far more rot than they thought. “So that’s how it all started,” says Negar. “We just said, ‘Let’s remove everything and do a cathedral ceiling.’ ”
Janusz, an optical engineer, had been studying carpentry as a hobby and did much of the building. Negar handled the design. The couple’s sudden drop in income meant they had to keep the budget modest, but they discovered that Janusz is particularly skilled at salvaging or sleuthing most of the materials and furnishings they needed at garage sales or on Craigslist.
And sometimes they just got lucky. Janusz adapted the sliding barn door on the bathroom from a standard door he found in a curbside “free” pile outside a store that was closing. The vintage woodstove in the corner? That was scooped up for $40 at a garage sale. One of Negar’s favourite finds is the copper kitchen sink from the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore—it now acts as a nostalgic nod to her home city of Kerman, Iran. “The main industry there is rugs and copper,” she says. “So I grew up with my mom cooking in copper pots.”
They lined the walls with cedar (again, from the ReStore). And the original concrete floors were in great shape—a local tradesperson polished and scraped them, giving them the look of classic terrazzo.
The low-ceilinged sleeping loft is kitted out with a cotton mattress that’s reminiscent of the bed rolls Negar would sleep on at her grandmother’s home in Iran. “The main goal was something that was comfortable and that fit the space,” says Negar. “But after we bought the mattress, I realized it reminded me of my childhood.”
Janusz constructed little milk crate-type boxes beside the bed from cedar remnants the couple used for the walls of the cabin. “You cannot have any type of cabinet or drawers there because the ceiling is so low,” says Negar. “But we wanted something where you can put books or little things.”
The kitchen is modest: a barbecue on the deck can handle bigger meals, but otherwise it’s just a fridge, a kettle, a hot plate, a toaster, and a coffee maker. And Negar couldn’t be happier with the set-up. “It was really eye-opening for me. When you live in an apartment in the city, you have the big fridge, all the gadgets,” she says. “This cottage has the essentials. It’s amazing. It’s very little maintenance, that type of lifestyle. And that’s a bit liberating.”
The workshop-turned-cabin wasn’t the only COVID project for the couple either. Ever the renaissance man, Janusz started keeping bees during the renovation, with his five hives now producing 80 lbs of honey per year. “It’s a nice feeling when you harvest things from your own land,” says Negar. In tribute to their new little tenants, the couple decided to name their new retreat Dancing Bees. “We thought that ‘dancing bees’ is such a happy thing,” she says.
The project has had a ripple effect on the couple, who fell in love with Sooke in the process—they’ve now decided to renovate the big cabin to live in and to rent out this tiny one on Vrbo. “We were pushed here because of COVID, and it reminded me how good it is to live in a smaller community, to know your neighbours, to be close to nature,” says Negar. “Janusz losing his job was a big deal for us. We’d probably still be procrastinating. But it turned into something we never thought we’d do.”
Vancouver-based writer Anicka Quin also wrote “A Nest for Rest,” in our May ’22 issue.