Personal and Professional Reflections on Cottage Renovations

When I was 5 or 6, my family would park our station wagon at the end of Old Mill Road. It was winter and the sun had long set. We would ski through the woods, the moonlight reflecting off the snow, past the sugar shack to our family cottage. It is one of many favourite memories. I recall the complete silence of the forest except for the shushing of skis on snow. We would arrive at the cottage, turn on the baseboard heaters, throw a log in the cast iron stove, and fall asleep in our beds, still able to see our breath crystallizing in the air above us. In the morning we would shuck off our blankets and clothes down to our t-shirts, as the stove and heaters had done their overnight jobs a little too well. The warmed cottage always had a wonderful smell of wood, smoke and earth.

My grandfather bought our family cottage property in 1962, long before my night skiing adventures. Our cottage was originally an unassuming old wood frame hunting shack surrounded by juniper bushes. Over 60 years the cottage has been lovingly renovated by three generations of our family. Our sweat and fingerprints are literally all over the building. My grandfather began the perpetual renovations by adding two small bedrooms to the back of the cottage, barely large enough for double beds. 30 years later those bedrooms were partially torn down and rebuilt larger in size. The homeasote fiberboard interior finish was replaced by cedar cladding that has since patinaed to a beautiful honey colour. Doors and windows were added, moved, filled in, and moved back to their original locations. A loft, whose sole access for many years was a roofing ladder stolen from the boathouse, increased the sleeping capacity by two. The loft has since been removed after a third bedroom was added. I believe that my uncle has rewired the cottage five times over. During our last renovation, a rather large one by our measure encompassing 800 ft2 of the cottage, the building department requested that we upgrade the existing foundations. The original boulders the building was sitting on apparently were not to code.

Up until the last renovation, there was never a grand plan or design that tied everything together. The cottage grew and evolved as our family did. It was these cottage construction projects that put me on the path towards a career in architecture. I learned so much from first watching, and then helping, my grandparents, parents, uncle and aunt, brother, cousins, partners, and neighbours come together to build something that was always so much greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the most important architectural design lessons I have learned, in or out of school, have come from renovating the cottage with my extended family.

Live on the property and observe daily rituals before making any major design decisions. Wait and see what your favourite path to the shoreline is before building a dock or a deck. Site your building or addition only after you know how you naturally move around and use the land.

Listen carefully to everyone who has a stake in the cottage, young to old. You never know where the next great idea might come from. Every family member at our cottage has a deep love and appreciation for the property and the work done by the generations before them. Each has their own insights and beliefs about what makes the cottage great, and in turn, different ideas for how it might be improved. Part of each family member’s dedication to the cottage comes from the lasting imprint each have made on the cottage design.

Plan for flexibility.  Cottages can be in families for generations, and use patterns change over time. It is hard to plan for all scenarios but creating flexible multi use spaces that can be used in different ways by season and over time ensure that a renovation will stand the test of time.

Know when to ask for help and bring in the professionals. There are times when calling the township planners, a building official, an architect or a builder might save you a lot of frustration and time that could be better spent with your family on the dock. Architects are trained to facilitate conversations and help people express their ideas. This can be extremely helpful for families undertaking design projects.

Renovations can be stressful – make sure to take the time to have fun as a family and continue to enjoy the cottage.  During our last renovation we had a hard 4 o’clock stop, which is when our family croquet tournaments commenced.

Our cottage is now a four season multi generational cottage. I can turn on the furnace with my phone before we leave the city for the cottage. I park 20 feet from the cottage door and carry my sleeping boys to their warmed beds. The temperature is the same in the morning when we wake up as it was when we got into our beds, and the smell of wood is still there.  Our family renovations made over many years have enhanced the use of our cottage, and made it possible for generations past, future, and present to enjoy the cottage together as a great big family, all while retaining the original charm of the old hunting cabin.


Paul Gorrie works with MOSS SUND Architects.  With over 15 years of architecture & design experience in residential, recreational, and institutional projects, his favourite project remains his family cottage on Gloucester Pool.