Cottage reno: a new addition for a 1940s cottage

Sampson cottage Photo by Paul Orenstein

Innovative design keeps the cherished 1940s family cabin at the centre of this cottage reno.

It was a fresh, early fall day when Barry Sampson and Judi Coburn arrived at Beech Lake in Haliburton, Ont., to find their cottage hoisted 11 feet in the air.

A simple faux-log structure, the one-and-a-half-storey building was perched high on four stacked wooden cribs, looking a bit like a dignified older lady who’s lifted up her skirt and found herself revealing bare legs underneath. “I actually felt sorry for the building,” Judi, a novelist and retired teacher, says with a laugh. “It seemed humiliated with its underside exposed.”

Barry saw it a bit differently. “I had a sense of the old cottage up there like a sentry, seeing views it had never seen before,” he recalls. A retired University of Toronto architecture professor and a principal architect at Baird Sampson Neuert Architects—a firm perhaps best known for its work on the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory and the French River Provincial Park Visitor Centre—Barry had been planning and thinking about the cottage reno project for years by then.

The cottage was hand-built by his father not long after the end of the Second World War, but by the early 2000s, it needed a new foundation and a new roof. A long-time advocate for sustainable design, Barry wasn’t interested in knocking it down, throwing it in landfill, and starting again, as many of their neighbours on the lake had done. Instead, he and Judi decided that they’d reimagine the old place along modernist lines, with an entirely new ground-level space beneath the old building and a vaulted loft above. The original structure would be wrapped, like a cherished treasure, in a floor-to-ceiling glass enclosure.

But first, the old girl would need to be jacked up into the air.

“We hired an English guy named Chris Coysh, who’s known around here as the person you call when you need something lifted,” Barry recalls. “I asked him what we should remove from the cottage to prepare. He said don’t remove a thing—not even the dishes.”
“We couldn’t believe it when we got inside. Nothing was broken,” Judi says, shaking her head in disbelief. “Not a single plate or cup.”

It was an auspicious, if slightly surreal beginning to a modern renovation that turned into something of an old-fashioned barn raising.

When Barry’s parents bought their waterfront plot, in the late 1940s, there were few other weekenders on the pretty kidney-shaped lake. Back then, Haliburton was just opening up to cottagers, many of them “Motors families,” like the Sampsons, who worked in the booming car factories of Oshawa. With new highways making lakefront property more accessible, and land less expensive than more established cottage regions, Haliburton was known, cheekily, as the poor man’s Muskoka.

How to plan a cottage renovation

Barry’s father, Bill, enlisted two friends to help him build the rectangular 750 sq. ft. cottage, using wood milled at the nearby lumber mill in Carnarvon. Situated on a steep slope with dense cedar and hemlock, smatterings of birch, beech, and maple, and an understorey of dogwood and ferns, the cottage looked across the lake toward farmers’ fields and a high rocky crag. A communal path midway down the slope cut across the property, parallel to the lake, and provided access to other cottages along the shore. Neighbours would pass by and stop to say hello. The lake was calm and warm, ideal for fishing and swimming.

Bill Sampson started out as a pattern maker at General Motors but had risen up the ranks to junior executive and engineer when he died suddenly of a heart attack on Boxing Day 1956 at only 41 years old. Barry was eight at the time, the second of three sons. He remembers unopened Christmas presents still under the tree in their Oshawa living room.

Judi Coburn in the living room of the old cottage.
Judi Coburn in the living room of the old cottage. Photo by Paul Orenstein

His mother, Bea, went to work at a warehouse to support her family, but she always took the boys to Beech Lake in the summer. “Mother didn’t like swimming and found the cottage isolated. But she was very devoted to us,” Barry says. “She wanted us to have that time to explore and be outdoors.”

Later, he and his older brother, David, would ride their motorcycles up and spend weekends there on their own. Once Barry met Judi, in Toronto in 1973, they would go up in the winter and fall, enjoying the solitude and moods of the off-season. “I thought of the cottage as more of my home than the family home in Oshawa,” Barry says. “I just felt like I belonged there.”

Bea died in 1987, and Barry and Judi took on ownership of the cottage. By then, they had a curly-haired six-year-old son named Ben. Life was busy, but they spent as much time at Beech Lake as possible, especially in the shoulder seasons, renting it out to friends in the summer to help defray costs.

The family expanded to four when Martin came along in 1993, and they continued to enjoy their little beach shaded by cedar and hemlock trees, having picnics and swimming in the current at the river leading into Boshkung Lake. As Ben finished high school and left home to work and travel, Martin sought out friendships with the children his age on the lake and developed a powerful attachment of his own to the place.

Beech Lake had changed by then. Gone were the farmers’ fields and the communal path. The lake was buzzy with fast boats, and many more summer homes huddled along the shore. “Our cottage was starting to show its age and needed work, which we could finally afford to do,” Barry recalls. “But I had to ruminate on what to do for a while, because, for me, to design something, there has to be an idea first. There are lots of people lifting cottages and putting habitable spaces underneath. But I wanted to raise the level of discussion, as well.”

Barry and Judi in the screened porch.
Barry and Judi in the screened porch. Photo by Paul Orenstein

The project really began to take shape once Barry decided that the cottage renovation could also be a living prototype for others with older cottages and growing families—a high-performance, all-season building that could meet the needs of multiple generations, while keeping the beloved old cottage (literally) at its heart.

Little of this grand vision is obvious when you approach from a steep forested country lane. The building, in fact, appears to be a modest metal structure, “a little tin box,” according to Barry—albeit one with a striking bright yellow window surround that pops out of the structure. Still, if you look more closely, you will see that the metal roof soars upward like a gathering wave, with wings extending perpendicular to it on either side, the wood painted a charcoal colour that blends into the landscape. A bridge leads over a large granite outcropping onto the main floor—the 1940s cottage, today nine feet above its original site. Inside, humble wooden kitchen cabinets, built nearly 70 years ago by Barry’s father, remain alongside newer cabinetry. The once-cramped kitchen is now open to the living and dining area. A striking new concrete hearth and substantial charcoal-painted wood beams play off against the old-school yellowed interior pine walls and mullioned wooden windows of the original building.

The soaring curved ceiling (the inside of the metal roof).
The soaring curved ceiling (the inside of the metal roof). Photo by Paul Orenstein

Downstairs, the new bottom level was designed as a place for the “boys” (now 37 and 26) and their friends to hang out. There’s a high-efficiency woodstove, which heats most of the building through the open stairwell core. There’s also a small food prep area with a bar sink installed in the concrete countertop, which turns into a ledge as it extends around the base of the stairs.

Accessible from both upstairs and down, the large screened porch is the only part of the new cottage that extends beyond the footprint of the original. The family spends much of their time there, the wind making the trees groan and whistle like a kind of conversation. Another large concrete hearth ensures the space remains comfortable in the evenings.

Because of its natural materials (granite, cedar, pine), its integration into the slope, and the way it accommodates the existing granite humps, the building feels as if it rises naturally out of the land and the dense forest around it. In fact, from the water, the thick tree cover means you can’t see the cottage at all. It’s all part of Barry and Judi’s desire to preserve what they can of the wildness of the place and to reduce their impact on the environment.

Of course, like most major renovations, this one has had its share of challenges. “Time has been our worst enemy,” Barry says. “Partly because Judi and I have both been busy in the city with our work. And because we’ve ended up doing a lot of it ourselves, figuring it out as we went along—drywalling, laying stones, wiring. It’s been painfully slow.”

“There’s been a huge learning curve for me,” Judi says. “I started out being alarmed by a screw gun. Now I can use one no problem, and a table saw too.”

Over the past 12 years and counting, they’ve picked away at the project on weekends and summer holidays, calling in friends and family for additional help. In the process, they’ve become skilled at electrical work—starting from scratch and wiring the entire structure on their own, a job that in itself extended over nearly five years.

“It seems like a simple thing,” explains Barry. “You have a plan, you mark the wires, you know where it’s got to go. But we’d start working on it a few hours one weekend, then go home, come back up and couldn’t remember anything! We also had lots of revisions, because we became more knowledgeable, but also because of tech innovations. We started with high-efficiency fluorescent tube light, but lighting became so much more sophisticated we decided to switch it up and go with LED tape.”

Barry and Judi also taught themselves how to form, pour, and finish concrete. “I’ve always been interested in concrete,” he explains. “It’s a magical material, but it’s lorded over by the gods of mischief.”

A set of daybeds sit against the exterior walls of the old cottage.
A set of daybeds sit against the exterior walls of the old cottage. Photo by Paul Orenstein

Their first project was the thick counter on the new lower level. When the form they’d built burst, and concrete started oozing out, they frantically recruited the young guy driving the concrete truck to help them as they reinforced it with screws and madly scooped out the material. Today, the bubbles and the honeycomb effect on the surface are a reminder of how far they’ve come. By their third big concrete project—the large fireplace in the screened porch—Barry and Judi were pros. With an angled concrete cap and a hearth open on two sides, it’s the focal point of the gracious porch, its concrete surface silky smooth.

The boys have also helped out. Two years ago, Ben moved back to Toronto after working in Guatemala for five years on and off, and he’s taken a special interest in building the granite stone retaining walls along the winding path to the front dock. He’s also helped make doors and install trim, panelling, and flooring and has done lots of painting. Each fall, he invites staff from Operation Groundswell—a socially conscious travel and education company, where he is the director of program design and development—up to Beech Lake for a weekend training retreat. Long-time staff have watched the cottage’s transformation and have come to feel connected to the place as well.

Martin too has done a bit of everything. A couple of summers ago, he arrived home from volunteering with Operation Groundswell in Guatemala and called in pals to lay down a plywood subfloor as a base for new radiant heating on the main level, as well as paint the steel columns in the screened porch. “My friends have been coming up here forever,” Martin says. “They love being here, and they’re glad to pitch in. It’s become a kind of communal project.” One long-time friend is so devoted to the cottage that he’s had its gps coordinates and a beech leaf tattooed on his arm.

But even with all the devoted volunteer helpers, the project has proved to be a particularly long one. When Barry was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2015, others kept the project moving as he took a temporary step back. There’s still some trim to be installed and certain finicky bits of panelling to be added when time permits. Today, Barry’s doing well with ongoing treatment, and family and friends of all generations continue to plug away at the final details.

In fact, this sense of an enduring, multi-generational collaboration is perhaps the greatest achievement of the architectural idea. By its very form—the careful marriage of the hand-built original structure with stunning, functional modern spaces—the reconstructed cottage encourages conversation between young and old, past and present. Like the communal path that once crossed the property, providing a place for friends and neighbours to talk, the shared space forged by Barry and Judi makes everyone feel welcome.

It’s an idea that’s perhaps expressed most clearly in the family’s annual New Year’s Eve celebrations. About eight years ago, when the renovation had reached a point where they were able to keep the cottage at a reasonable temperature in late December, they decided to host a multi-day shindig to ring in the new year. Since then, it’s become a highlight of the year for both the “geezers” (as Barry and Judi call themselves and their contemporaries), Martin’s close-knit friends, a group of 12 or 13, as well as Ben and his girlfriend, Christine.

The Sampson cottage
Photo by Paul Orenstein

The festivities start with a trip to the local Boshkung Brewing for supplies, a downhill ski day at nearby Sir Sam’s, and shinny on the homemade hockey rink that the younger generation creates on the lake. There are games, chit-chat, and a big shared dinner. Each year, by popular demand, Martin gives what he describes as a “pretty short and weird” improvised post-dinner speech, reflecting on current events and/or the meaning of life. Afterward, a motley all-ages band—Barry, Martin, and Martin’s best friend on guitars; Judi on recorder; with Christine, a professionally trained singer, on vocals—counts down the final minutes of the year with a short set. Then there’s dancing, with a playlist that invariably includes the bluesy grooves of family favourite Creedence Clearwater Revival.

“The geezers go to bed, and the younger generation socializes well into the night,” says Barry.

“To our surprise and delight we’re now outnumbered by the younger generation,” says Judi. “The people have come. That’s how we know the cottage works.”

Raising a cottage: key factors

There’s an art and a science to raising a cottage properly and safely. Here are some key factors to consider, according to veteran lifter Chris Coysh, the owner and operator of Coysh Construction in Minden, Ont.

• Hire someone who knows what they’re doing and has lifting experience, insurance, and workplace safety coverage. Ask the company if it has someone it calls on for extra engineering know-how or if it requires assistance with the steel beams.

• It’s not cheap. Coysh says the minimum to lift a cottage is $5,000 to $10,000, and the cost can shoot up to $100,000, depending on the size and age of the structure, as well as accessibility. “If access is a pain in the neck—working around trees, steep driveways, going across neighbour’s land—the price goes up,” he explains.

• With enough money and the right equipment, any structure can be lifted. Sometimes rotten joists will have to be replaced first, but Coysh has even lifted 100-year-old-plus cottages.

An exploded view of the project showing how new and old combine.
An exploded view of the project showing how new and old combine. Courtesy Baird Sampson Neuert Architects

• Prepare for the lift by emptying shelves and putting valuables in boxes (the Sampson-Coburn cottage was simply lifted straight up and down so this wasn’t required). Be prepared for cracks in the drywall or plaster. If windows are installed incorrectly, they can sometimes be damaged in the process.

• Permits are not generally required for lifting a cottage, though some jurisdictions may have height restrictions for the final structure. Check with your municipality for applicable bylaws.

This story originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 2019 issue of Cottage Life magazine as “Old at Heart.”

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