Whalon Bay Cottage

Lake Joseph, Ontario

This is a story about what happens when an architect is asked to build a cottage, but doesn’t have a client. “When we were commissioned to design and build this cottage for the open market, we brought 25 years of cottage-building experience to the job,“ says Graham Smith, the architect and principal who designed the cottage on Whalon Bay. “Essentially we designed the cottage as we would have designed it for ourselves while infusing it with the myriad of successful features from previous private cottage projects.” The result is a dream cottage, built by a master builder, for a master builder.

The site is a generous 7 acres, with an entire 337 feet of straight-line frontage on Lake Joseph. The location is on Whalon Bay, a secluded bay on the east side of the lake, with great north views across the bay and long-reaching western views out of the bay into the lake. From the dockside, summer sunsets in the west and northwest run the entirety of the cottage season, from mid April until late August, with the sun setting right in the middle of the view out of bay on the June solstice. The team was struck with the peacefulness of Whalon Bay, well off of busy boat traffic routes, and not a destination for ski or wakeboard boats looking for calmer water.

The site was chosen to maintain maximum separation to neighbouring cottages, 300’ on the west and more than 450’ on the east. The boat house is also positioned for privacy, while ensuring the dock is turned toward the sunset and the long view down the bay. The boat house is located to take advantage of a gentle sandy shore, perfect for little kids wading, while ensuring it goes out to water deep enough for a dive off the dock, into Lake Joseph’s legendary crystal clear water.

With the site plan set the team’s second task was to identify the stylistic approach to the cottage project. Widely known for very modern designs, our Altius team instead chose to go with Muskoka vernacular, which is a very simple, clean, unadorned style that is more about history, purity and functional form. “This style is really rooted in the original cottages from the late 1800s and early 1900s, they are purposeful in their form and in that way speak to our contemporary aesthetic,” Graham says, summarizing his early sketches for the design.

In developing the architectural plans the big question we had to answer was who the owner would be. Usually cottages come with an owner, so this was the line item that sets this cottage apart. Cottages, unlike urban residences, are almost always multi-generational. So, imagining a retired couple with adult children and grand-children, and then a middle aged couple with teenagers, the team moved forward with the sketch stage, and the cottage was designed to accommodate a variety of family scenarios. Altius identified that this cottage might likely be used as a full-time, year-round residence long before Covid health crisis, because Stanley House Road is a four season municipally maintained road, so luckily it is fully compatible with our current work-and-live-from-the-cottage situation.

The primary architectural program was to provide a cottage capable of entertaining a large summer crowd while still being cozy and intimate for the owners in the dead of winter. In keeping with that idea, an open concept living space on the main floor opens onto a large 300 square foot screen porch. Also on the main floor is a bedroom with ensuite, powder room, laundry room and pantry, accommodating a ground floor living situation suitable for a guest/owner with reduced mobility, in line with the multi-generational style. Upstairs is the generous and relaxing master bedroom with ensuite, walk out screen porch and tree top deck. A junior master with ensuite and walk in closet, to accommodate an up and coming generation or guests who need a bit of pampering, is then accompanied by two more bedrooms, a linen closet and split bathroom to complete the upper floor. The cottage is built to accommodate a cheerful crowd of well-cared for family members and friends. The basement features 1000 square feet of unprogrammed finished space that can be tailored to the owners needs. ”It could be an awesome Sports Bar, a teenage rec room and bunkie or a deluxe gym and work out space. There’s no limit to what this space could be and the walkout and massive view to the lake is wonderful,” says Graham. “We wanted to leave it open and customizable.” The basement also features a 500 sq.ft. crawl space.

The kitchen is designed for entertaining and serious cooking with a BBQ located just off the adjacent deck for outdoor cooking. The living room is centred around the fireplace but close enough to the kitchen to be part of the conversation, allowing for ample lounging. The interior dining table is similarly close to this social grouping, and it is perfect for use as a work or games table or a dining space. “The Great Room, Muskoka Room, or whatever you want to call it is the main focus of summer living, we call it a screen porch and it is the best space in the cottage,” comments Graham Smith. A large double sliding door pockets into the wall to connect this outdoor dining and living space to the rest of the cottage’s social space. ”Where Altius has done this before our clients typically open the doors in June and close them again in September. All meals happen here and dinner conversations linger long into the evening,” says Graham.

The exterior material palette is neutral and timeless, designed to help the cottage age like a fine wine. Dark charcoal wood siding, black window frames and Douglas Fir accents allow the space to recede into the natural landscape. From the water it is almost invisible, as the best cottages are harmoniously fitted into their surroundings. Large roof overhangs and the underside of the car port are finished with a rich burnt sienna that contrasts with the vibrant greenery of summer and blends with the spectacular colours of fall, which is a great touch.

The interior palette is also muted and neutral. The Douglas Fir of the heavy timber frame is extended to the walls and ceilings, all left unfinished to be enjoyed with classic exposed grain, or ready for whitewash or a splash of colour if desired. Dominating the main floor living space and central stair is a solid fireplace clad in classic Muskoka granite. Floors are American Cherry which will darken over time to contrast more with the Fir while the granite floors throughout the bathrooms and the entry are heated for comfort and supplemental heat, to keep the cottage cozy in the shoulder seasons and winter.

Over the years it has been rare for Altius’ clients to use Muskoka cottages in the winter if at all. Christmas and Family Day were an occasional exception, with heat dialled back substantially in between,s or cottages entirely shut down. With the increasing trend of retiring north instead of south Altius brought to bear all of its sustainable design experience to make the cottage energy efficient. “The cottage adheres to the low energy approach of Passive House Design. Muskoka is an unbelievably demanding region to design for with temperatures ranging from +30C in the summer to -30C in the winter. To ensure the comfort of our owners and to reduce the carbon foot print we had to ensure that this would be the most efficient cottage ever built in Muskoka,” says Graham. Energy efficiency and quality building are hallmarks of the Altius quality cottage, and this cottage is no exception.

To understand the form of the cottage, it is close to a cube, the most efficient shape to minimize the exterior area of the building (and energy loss) while maximizing interior volume (liveable space). We then took advantage of the cottage’s orientation, minimizing southern windows to reduce summer heat gain while allowing maximum glazing on the lakeside and ensuring thermal performance by specifying triple glazed windows and high performance double glazing for the doors. We put all our technical expertise into this one. The building envelop itself is more than double the insulation requirements of the Ontario Building code with R-30 beneath the basement slabs, R38 in the foundation walls, R42 in the walls above grade and R50 in the roof. “The insulation is so good we had to install a cellular signal repeater in the cottage because the walls were blocking cell phone signals,” laughs Graham. It is, in other words, a very solid and energy efficient building.

We didn’t stop there. Rockwool insulation installed in the interior walls for sound privacy allowed our team to zone the mechanical system so that parts of the home could be effectively dialled down in the winter, for rooms not in use, dramatically reducing energy consumption. Using a forced air furnace with a continuously variable fan speed and thermostatically controlled zone dampers we not only addressed ultimate comfort and efficiency but also solved a key problem for hot summer days. Air conditioning is increasingly a reality for cottages and more so if it needs to serve as a year-round residence. Humidity is the worst enemy on a hot sleepless night and cottagers are notorious for leaving the doors open all day, letting the humidity inside to climb to 90% and then wondering why they can’t get comfortable at night. “It always amazed us that our clients had four zone AC in their cars but not in their homes. Problem solved!” comments Graham. By carefully designing the energy zones in this way, homeowners can leave the living spaces open to the great outdoors while keeping the bedrooms cool for a good night sleep.

The cottage is heated and cooled by a multi-level strategy and flex fuels, which complement the building’s passive energy design. “The mechanical system is there to help out with what the cottage is already doing by itself. Its job is to compliment the buildings design, not to compensate for its failings,” Graham explains. Cooling is first and foremost achieved by solar geometry and passive night-time stack ventilation. To achieve stack ventilation two large operable skylights are in the centre stairwell and the master bedroom. In combination with operable windows in every room and at the lowest level of the basement hot air rises up and can be exhausted up and out from the cottage most days of the summer except when nighttime temperatures fail to dip down into the comfort zone and then the owner has the option of allowing the AC to take over. It’s the best of all energy worlds.

Once into the heating season the high performance Renaissance Rumford fireplace in combination with the furnaces air circulation mode is capable of heating the entire cottage all by itself. The entry deck under the car port can accommodate a full bush cord of hardwood. Supplemental electric resistive floor heating is embedded in all of the bathroom floors and the entry through to the pantry and as a last resort the four zone propane furnace will fire up to supplement on the coldest winter days. The mechanical system like the lighting and other systems in the cottage is wifi enabled and ready for Smart Home integration. We put our four-season and twenty years of home and cottage building into this one.

Working first and foremost on the premise that the cottage, like most cottages, will enjoy a lifetime or more with one family, it is designed for aging in place. A generous three vehicle car port provides four season covered entry, with the kitchen just steps away from the front door allowing for easy unloading of pantry supplies. All of the stairs in the building are gentle and there is a main floor bedroom with ensuite bath for potential family members with reduced mobility, so everyone can be accommodated. Though elevated above Lake Joseph the path down to the waterfront is highly accessible to grand parents and small children alike, so all can enjoy the lake as much as possible. A second smaller driveway curves around the back of the cottage and discreetly approaches the boat house so that guests and their luggage can be couriered to and from the boat house, with its guest quarters, and water side by golf cart or utility vehicle as desired.

The two-storey boat house is a luxury reserved for properties with over 300’ of frontage and our design takes full advantage of this luxury. Due to its protected position we decided to design one large double slip instead of two singles. It is capable of accommodating two 24’ boats with additional parking for up to five boats around the permitter of the docks. There’s ample room in the interior of the boathouse for kayaks, paddle boards, canoes and two generous storage lofts either side of the second story. It is a superb base for water adventures.

The upstairs of the boat house is the true chameleon of cottage living and as such we designed it to accommodate the teenagers, the young couple with a baby that needs quiet, and for the inevitability that it will be the potential home to grandparents in search of peace and quiet, once the children and grand children have taken over the cottage itself.

We have carefully seeded the property with mixes of native perennial grasses and wildflowers that will take hold in the years to come. With 7 acres of property, owners have potential to accommodate other amenities and our expert team will be there to assist as desired.

The Whalon Bay Cottage is thoughtful and purposeful. It is a tribute to a long legacy of cottaging in Muskoka that is slowly but surely becoming a year round destination, especially given recent world events. It it efficient in both its design and performance and purposeful in its quest for comfort, relaxation and lasting family memories. We have put over 20 years of design expertise into the building of it, and have ensured it has the ability to grow with any client lucky enough to call it a family cottage.

Photogrpahy Naomi Finlay