Crafting a Masterpiece

A lakefront cottage on a ravine lot is turned from fixer-upper into an award-winning show-piece and family home.

By Judy Liebner

Brad Oke likes a challenge when it comes to designing homes. But even Oke, an architectural technologist and partner in Oke Woodsmith Building Systems, had his work cut out for him with a dilapidated lakefront cottage rebuild in St. Joseph, north of Grand Bend, Ontario.

“The property was beautiful but the cottage was in quite bad repair,” says Oke of the site, which is bordered by a ravine.

The owner asked Oke about the possibility of building a new home on the footprint of the existing cottage, but local conservation authority rules made this impossible. Oke would have had to position a new home 100 feet back from the edge of the ravine, which faces west toward Lake Huron.
Oke suggested rebuilding the existing cottage, but the owner couldn’t see the possibilities. Oke was asked if any of his other clients would be interested in the cottage, but they all wanted to build new homes. As a last resort, the owner offered the property to Oke.

“All the advice I gave to everyone else, I took myself, and renovated and actually rebuilt the cottage,” says Oke. “It’s basically R-2000-type construction in a 40-year-old framework that we beefed up.”

In September 2009, the Ontario Home Builders’ Association recognized Oke’s efforts, as the cottage was declared Most Outstanding Home Renovation. It was also a finalist for the Canadian Home Builders’ Association awards in the Single Detached Home Between 1,500-2,000 Square Feet category.

The first phase of renovation took place at nights and weekends, as the Okes (Brad and Janice), their sons and some of the company’s employees rebuilt the 1,600-square-foot cottage. The five-month project was completed in July 2007.

The walls of the existing structure were strengthened, reinsulated, and new drywall added. Because of its higher R-value and ability to seal a home, polyurethane insulation was sprayed into the walls to protect against lakeshore winds.

Steel beams reinforced support columns, rafters were strengthened, and air spaces created for ventilation and to prevent frost buildup. Oke repaired the foundation, and installed in-floor radiant heating and ductless air-conditioning.

The second phase entailed building an attached spa room between the cottage and a new three-bay garage. A full basement was built below both new areas and the garage equipped with a motorized lift system, allowing for seasonal storage in the basement below.

In the third phase, Oke developed the area above the garage to include a loft bedroom, a casual dining area, kitchenette and great room. Three additional bedrooms, separated by an en suite bathroom, create a 1,200-square-foot apartment for the couple’s three sons when they come home to visit. That phase was completed in November 2008.

The Craftsman-style cottage gave Oke an opportunity to experiment with materials and finishes. He created a feature wall of dry stacked natural stone on the main floor and used the same material to face the fireplace in the spa room.

“I tried to incorporate a lot of ideas I had used on clients…It’s very difficult because there’s no one who says ‘no’,” says Oke of his dual role as client and contractor.

The compact floor plan in the cottage maximizes the use of space. The great room, off the front entry, combines a casual dining and living area unified by a vaulted ceiling of pickled pine. A two-storey wall of windows overlooks a wrap-around porch where the Okes do most of their summer entertaining.

“The living space is quite small because 99 per cent of the time when we entertain, we entertain outside,” says Oke.
Quarter-sawn white oak was used throughout the cottage, from the trim and interior doors, antiqued with a brown glaze, to the beams that support the vaulted ceiling in the great room.

“We wanted to make it look like a well-preserved 50-year-old cottage,” says Oke.

The kitchen, designed by Lloyd Vandenberg of Woodecor in Stratford, juxtaposes old and new elements. Black granite counters and a curving breakfast bar of acid-etched glass are paired with cabinetry made of quarter-sawn white oak. A stainless steel refrigerator, flanked by pantry cabinets, is recessed beneath the staircase, using otherwise wasted space.
Two guest bedrooms behind the kitchen offer a view into the spa room, which is outfitted with a saltwater hot tub, a gas fireplace and four sets of patio doors. A bathroom with a front-loading washer and dryer completes the main floor.

An oak staircase leads to the second-floor loft where French doors divide the sitting area/home office from the master bedroom. The bedroom and bathroom have vaulted ceilings of pickled pine, reinforcing the Craftsman feel.

Although the ravine bordering the property restricted building possibilities, it provides a great deal of privacy. Janice, an avid gardener, created deep flowerbeds along the ravine and at the front of the house. Sheltered beneath tall oak trees, the flowerbeds include shade-loving plants, such as hostas, dogwood, hydrangeas, evergreens and heucheras.

“It provides more privacy,” Oke says. “Both Janice and I work in the public all the time. We love entertaining, but we don’t want to be always in full view.”

Oke reinforced the cottage’s exterior rustic elements by adding two dormers, cedar shingle accents and the porch, supported by cedar posts. The home is clad with Maibec weather-resistant wood siding, a natural product treated to eliminate maintenance.

Copper rain chains are used as a more attractive alternative to downspouts. The chain runs through a series of metal cups with a hole in the bottom, funneling water from copper eavestroughs into catch basins beneath.

The rear of the property incorporates an outdoor entertaining area formed by a large patio and a huge fireplace of Owen Sound ledge rock. The three-car garage in front of the patio provides additional entertaining space, and has a television, exercise equipment and a bar where the couple can serve guests.

Although they originally had no intention of keeping the cottage, they can’t bear to part with it now.

“We bought it initially as a fixer-upper that got out of hand, and Janice fell in love with the property,” Oke says. “We decided that this would be our home. We love it here in the summer and we love it even more in the fall and winter. It’s just beautiful.”