Design & DIY

This unique log cabin mixes old school techniques and modern design

Stephen Gardner outside his log cabin with kids running around Photo by Derek Shapton

Living space
2,100 sq. ft.

Why we love it
Unique story; hand craftsmanship; design that supports sustainability

In 2018, Jill Mandley and Stephen Gardner’s Toronto house was too cramped, both inside and out, for their two young kids. Rather than trying to trade up downtown, where even a few extra square feet costs Kardashian-type money, they realized they would be better off buying a cottage. Looking around Midland, Ont., where Jill grew up and where her family still lives, was an obvious choice. “We thought it would be nice for the kids to be a short drive from them on the weekends,” she says.

far away view of a log cabin among the trees
The telltale sign of a chink-less cabin is that there are no visible gaps or cement lines between the logs. Photo by Derek Shapton

The couple didn’t expect to end up with the first property they liked—a four-bedroom log cabin with 200 feet of waterfront along the Severn River. They thought they would lose the kind of bidding war that makes Toronto’s real estate market so fraught. But they put in an offer one morning at 9 a.m., and to their delight, they were cottage owners by noon.

photo of logs carved around door
Wood contracts as it dries—builders need to account for three to seven years of drying time, particularly around windows, doors, and vertical posts. Photo by Derek Shapton

Part of what attracted them to the place was the size. At 2,100 sq. ft. on 2 1/2 acres, there was no shortage of room for the little ones to run around (or swim or paddle around off the private dock). More importantly, they also felt that the design aligned with their personal values.

The family is vegan, and they own and run Urban Herbivore, a popular plant-based restaurant, one of the first restaurants in Toronto to use biodegradable packaging. They adhere to the diet because it’s animal-friendly and also because it has a lower environmental impact.

In a way, the cottage is the architectural equivalent of veganism. The construction is chink-less, which refers to a centuries-old Scandinavian process of fitting massive logs together, some over 35-feet long, using precise carving and wooden pegs. There are no metal screws or nails holding things in place, and no CO₂-intensive cement (hence the name chink-less, as chinking refers to the practice of binding timber using cement or similar adhesives).

Close up of the chink-less peg joinery
The peg joinery throughout the cottage provides the flexibility for the wood to expand and contract depending on moisture levels. Photo by Derek Shapton

The cottage was built in 1992, the graduation project of a class of students at the Pat Wolfe Log Building School, a training program that focusses on old-world hand craftsmanship. The first owners happened to notice the structure as they drove past Pat Wolfe’s facility, near Ottawa. They were so taken by the cabin’s playful, Paul Bunyan-esque aesthetic that they bought it, had it disassembled, and shipped it to Coldwater, Ont., where the structure was reassembled.

original blueprints of the log cabin
The family doesn’t know the names of the students who built the cottage but believes that they left a signature—a carving of a duck—on a wooden keystone in the middle of the cabin. Photo by Derek Shapton

“The honey-hued Ontario eastern white pine logs have benefits beyond their good looks,” says Brian Morrison, the owner and operator of the Log Building School. “Because they are a minimum 12 inches wide, they have thermal mass on top of insulating value higher than that of an average framed house.” The logs store heat in the winter and reflect heat outward in the summer to help maintain an ambient temperature.

“In the winter, we often only rely on the fireplace and don’t have to use the propane furnace,” says Jill. “In the summer, we don’t have an air conditioner and don’t need one.” It helps that the cabin is well-shaded and has good cross-ventilation. The bedrooms have vaulted ceilings that allow the hot air to rise and extractor fans that suck it away.

interior bedroom shot
Photo by Derek Shapton

This year, the family hopes to take the home’s green credentials even further: “Our goal is to install solar panels on the roof and get off the grid,” says Jill. The panels will be among a handful of updates they have undertaken since assuming ownership.

ground floor bathroom behind the stairs
Jill and Stephen chose white for the added bathroom and for the new kitchen cabinetry because the cool tone accents the warm hues of the surrounding wood, and because it brightens the space. Photo by Derek Shapton

They also put in a ground-floor bathroom, but the biggest change was the kitchen. Being serious foodies, the couple wanted a chef-worthy space—including an island where parents and kids chop veggies together. They wanted something eye-catchingly modern, with hand-poured cement counters and bright white cabinets, to appeal to potential renters (the couple often rents out their place to offset ownership costs). But they kept the cottage low impact, with energy-efficient appliances and a water filtration system that also reduces waste from showers and toilets.

interior of the cabin kitchen shot
Photo by Derek Shapton

Most of the structure, however, is as it would have been in 1992, and that won’t change. “I love the logs so much,” says Jill. “They require a bit more maintenance. We have to clean off dust and debris twice a year, and re-stain and reseal them every 10 years, but they have so much character. They expand and contract depending on the moisture in the air, so the cabin feels like it’s alive, as though it’s breathing.”

Do you wanna build a cabin?
Though he started his career as a plumber, Pat Wolfe always loved log homes. He moved to Williams Lake, B.C., to learn timber-framing and how to craft log homes. Seeing a need for similar training programs in Ontario, Wolfe moved back and founded the Pat Wolfe Log Building School in McDonald’s Corners, Ont., in 1975. Since then, the school (now located in Lanark, Ont.) has become the most well-known of its kind in Eastern Canada. A key philosophy at the school is “learning by doing.” Students build complete cabins, which are sold to the public at a discounted price before they are built (on a first-come, first-served basis, conditional on finalized permits and plans). Depending on the program, students will learn how to carve practice logs and will build a full structure, then disassemble it, ship it (usually within Ontario or Quebec), and reassemble it at its final location. Hot tip: if you purchase a cabin, the course is included.—Alysha Vandertogt

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