Living large in a Summer Cottage —A design principle to take back home


I am sitting enjoying the most glorious lazy day imaginable. Kayakers recently paddled by on the calm lake in front of me. A part of me thinks I should join them, but nah, that’d require too much effort. It isn’t everyday that the professor and I have a chance to simply lounge in sunshine on a breezy day with the only interruption being the gentle lapping of waves and the random thoughts that pop into our heads.


Often we fill our short time at the cottage hosting family and friends for picnics and BBQs. Today, only our children’s friends are here and they are magically entertaining themselves. In the absence of stuff to do I have been steadily working my way through some magazines and books.

While here, excursions to town involve three favourite activities for me: exploring antique shops, indulging in Kawartha Dairy ice cream, and raiding the library for design, decoration and construction inspiration. Earlier in the week I came home with Sarah Susanka’s “The Not So Big House.” I thought it would be a fun read to help conjure up dream cottage renovations. Ours—shared by several cousins—was built in 1946 and retains much of that era’s charm, bundled up neatly in its compact design.

Glass drawer pulls at “Great Finds” antiques. These will be a perfect addition to the dresser I am currently refurbishing

Admittedly, the cottage has undergone some modernization over the decades: indoor plumbing, a reasonably modern kitchen, installation of a telephone line, shower, and ultimately an Internet connection in 2014. Other than the addition of a small bunkie at the back—we affectionately call the barn—the original cottage blueprint of 750 square feet has not changed since my grandfather procured the rationed postwar building materials to construct it.

“The Barn” —Sleeping Bunkie


Sunday Brunch for a rainy afternoon

Due to the compact living quarters every day affairs such as preparing food, changing clothes and lounging around gets edited while we are here. And when it rains, the true test of living in a small, highly functional space comes to bear. It’s quite remarkable how adaptable we are.

What’s a little more water?

Every year small cabins like these are torn down in favour of large year round homes. It makes sense. People retire here and want living space to share with visiting children and grandchildren. We love our little cottage just the way it is, but every year we still dream up modifications from the very simple to the extravagant—if we had the means.

One of the new builds going up along the shoreline this year

The underlying principle in Susanka’s philosophy of architectural design is that we gravitate to spaces that meet our personal definition of comfort. In other words spaces that fit. Bigger does not necessarily equal comfort. What she suggests is that we can rethink how we use the space we have. Instead of having each room dictate to us what its purpose is each room should be designed for how it is used.


I think of our Family Room back home. In it we watch TV, play video games, gather for movies and chill by the fireplace. But it is also connected to the kitchen and so it becomes the principle room where guests gather to chat and sample finger foods during a party. The patio doors at the back of the room also make it the main to access the backyard. At roughly 12’x17’ it’s not a lot of space to squeeze so much activity into. Not to worry says Susanka. Purposeful nooks can be carved into a lot of otherwise unused space anywhere in a home.

I couldn’t leave this Elephant Print on the remnant pile when it looks so much at home on the wicker chair.

The cottage is a great example of multi-functionality.  From front door to back door spans a distance of 25’. In that space we have the living room, dining room and “foyer.” The space can also be considered the: games room, office, craft table and extra sleeping quarters.  A dresser in the corner houses linens for the kitchen and bathroom.  Nothing is stored at the cottage that isn’t used regularly. Large family gatherings happen out of doors. But in a rainy pinch the sofa and two swivel comfy chairs can be rotated to accommodate a large group indoors. Its cozy for sure, but no one has ever said that it is not charming.

The round pine table has a multifunctional personality. Four extension leaves make it possible to seat a crowd for dinner

Not surprisingly my vacation read has completely reenergized me for the work I am doing back at home. I can’t wait to carve out many other purposeful nooks in our house. But for now I am content to sit back, open another magazine and fall asleep as I pretend to read. Dreaming of upgrades, renovations and with every intent to maybe do some kayaking.

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