This off-the-grid cottage in Nova Scotia will steal your heart

Updated: July 19, 2019

“Small, simple, affordable, beautiful.” That’s what Halifax couple David Black and Heather Scott wanted in a cottage. The busy professionals—she’s a doctor, he’s a professor—purchased 31/2 acres of oceanfront just south of Lunenburg, N.S., in 2005, and five years later, figured it was time to build before their teenaged children were launched. The couple wanted a true “retreat”—there’s no Internet, TV, or phone in the off-grid 720 sq. ft. cottage. The design, dubbed “the Shed Retreat” and created by Solterre Design in Halifax, is uncomplicated. The floor, wall, and roof assemblies are built in standard 2×6 stud construction and rest atop an insulated concrete slab that doubles as flooring. The exterior, clad in cedar shingles and medium-density fibre-cement board, boasts an uncluttered aesthetic. It’s a design to suit its purpose. “You go to sleep looking at the ocean and wake up looking at the ocean,” says Heather. “You can hear the waves and see the sailboats go by.”

The decision for the couple to go off-grid was prompted by the high cost of running electricity to the somewhat isolated property. Instead, three 240-watt solar panels on the south-facing roof generate all of the cottage’s power. 

The team at Solterre, led by Jordan Willett, an intern architect, designed the building with the sun in mind, taking full advantage of passive heating and cooling techniques. In cooler seasons, when the sun dips low in the sky, light penetrates deep into the Shed Retreat through generous southern windows, warming everything including the insulated concrete floor, which stores and slowly releases the heat. In summer, when the sun is high in the sky, a one-foot overhang overtop the south-facing windows helps keep the hot sun out. The overhang also sheds rain away from the structure, protecting the siding. 

While there’s no insulation in the three-season cabin, it is airtight. “Eliminating drafts is the biggest part of comfort,” says Willett. The heating system is simple and effective: a woodstove provides warmth to offset chilly evenings. 

Like the main floor, every room upstairs has ocean views and ample daylight. The two bedrooms are separated by a single interior wall, to “maximize light and create the feeling of more space on a very small footprint,” Willett says. Part of the floor has been cut away to allow more of this light to flood the main floor. A sleeping loft tucked under the eaves and accessible by a ladder has room enough for a double mattress. It serves as a third sleeping space for the kids (though it’s become a trickier option for the couple’s now six-foot-tall son).

While committed to the long-term goal of building a larger retirement home, the Scott-Blacks find the Shed Retreat satisfies their needs for now.  “We’ve learned how to be efficient living here,” says David, “and we don’t need as much space as we thought we did.”

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