Sean Kelly, a 28-year-old city dweller, faced that ultimate millennial conundrum: he was ready to buy his own property, a piece of paradise on which to build a cottage, but the exploding market priced him out of the lots he liked. So, like many of his generation, he turned to his parents for help—but not with the down payment. Instead, Sean asked if he could build a bunkie at the back of their Schomberg, Ont., property. It would be his respite from the city, a place to unwind on weekends. The Kellys seized the chance to spend more time with their son, and Sean set out to build his 150 sq. ft. oasis. Now, 10 weekends, $10,000, and countless lessons later, he has a mini version of his dream cottage and tons of tips to share with other DIY builders.
A generational shift
The urge to build runs deep in the Kelly family. Sean’s grandfather Norman was a carpenter, and his father, Geoff, is in construction. “But I never really had the interest,” Sean says. That is, until his father asked him to help build a Japanese tea house on his property in 2015. It was Sean’s first time wielding power tools, and he took to it. “Somewhere in my genetic code I think it’s in me to be really addicted to wood.” Geoff passed down all the woodworking wisdom that Norman taught him before he died. “Even though
I never knew my grandfather, I felt connected to him from the stories my dad told me,” Sean says. “I could tell my dad felt the same way about his dad as I do about him.” Once they finished the tea house, Sean was well-equipped to build his bunkie, only getting help from his father to install the rafters and to shingle the roof. When it was complete, Sean’s aunt came to inspect his handiwork. “She surprised me with a gift to mark the occasion,” he says. “My grandfather’s tool belt.”
To give his bunkie a rustic feel, Sean clad the walls in shiplap and left the studs exposed. He bought rough-sawn lumber so that the interior had texture—“I’ve actually gotten slivers”—but he wanted to hide the wood grain, which required a coat of Zinsser BIN shellac sealer. Then he covered the walls in Ultra Pure White from Behr. “There are infinite shades of white, and I’m very particular about it.” All-white walls give the small space a feeling of expanse, amplified by the 15-foot ceiling. “In the city you don’t get that,” Sean says. “I thought, If I’m building this from scratch, I’m going to get myself some damn height.” Being particular but also budget-conscious meant that instead of buying the windows he wanted, he had to compromise. He bought raw glass and framed it with pine. “That was the most time-consuming part.”
You can’t hurry love
“On a big project like this, it’s overwhelming to think about the steep hill to get to the end,” Sean says. “At some point, after the initial planning, you just have to break ground.” Though the building went up quickly, Sean says it took a good two years after that to furnish it. He dragged in the weathered Muskoka chair from his parents’ yard. “That took a lot of new screws to keep it functional,” he says. “But you wouldn’t get that nice grey if it wasn’t so perfectly weathered.” He made the coffee table himself from scrap wood and legs from hairpinlegs.ca. For the low hanging shelf along the wall of windows, Sean used rope and a piece of old barnboard he got from barnboardstore. com. Beyond that, “a lot of the pieces I just happened upon,” he says. “I think that’s the best way to make a place feel lived in and organic. And that’s especially important for a cottage.”