written by:
photos by:
February 1, 2009
Originally published in Smaller is Smarter
When most people think of locations for a holiday home, they have visions of beaches, golf courses, spas, and chalets. But few have the mettle to choose the sort of place that architects André Lessard and Barbara Dewhirst deemed perfect.
Scrap steel and reclaimed wood clad the three-story triangular tower, which hovers over a small deck and outdoor space.
Photo by 
1 / 5
The house is sited 100 feet from Ontario's Otter Lake.
Photo by 
2 / 5
The scrap-steel staircase leads up to the upper floor, where there's a kitchen and a dining area.
Photo by 
3 / 5
The deck built on the ground level provides ample outdoor space during inclement weather.
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Paul Orenstein

4 / 5
Bunk beds inside house the couple's three sons as well as overnight visitors. Almost all the furniture in the house was built out of leftover scrap steel and wood from the structure’s frame. <a href="http://www.dwell.com/articles/canadian-beacon.html">Rea
Almost all the furniture in the house was built out of leftover scrap steel and wood from the structure’s frame.
Photo by 
5 / 5
la tour des bebelles exterior
Scrap steel and reclaimed wood clad the three-story triangular tower, which hovers over a small deck and outdoor space.
La Tour des Bébelles

When most people think of locations for a holiday home, they have visions of beaches, golf courses, spas, and chalets. But few have the mettle to choose the sort of place that architects André Lessard and Barbara Dewhirst deemed perfect. “We first saw the site on a rainy fall morning,” Dewhirst says of their Otter Lake, Ontario, weekend spot. “The place was overrun with hemlock trees, and it was dark and gloomy. We immediately decided to buy it.”

The price might have been right, but, like so many eager home builders, the couple found that buying the land was the easiest part of the ordeal. Construction was delayed for years, and the whole process took nearly a decade due to factors like stringent local environmental building codes and cash-flow concerns.

On most weekends the architects would make the six-hour round-trip drive from their Toronto home to camp on the 32-acre plot with their three boys, who were three, five, and nine years old when they bought the property. At first, the children were urbanites, more accustomed to taxis and lattés than tree frogs and lichen, but the new spot proved better than the Boy Scouts when it came to teaching them about nature. “The kids didn’t expect to be living on such a rugged, swampy property,” Lessard says, slightly embarrassed at the recollection. “The first time they saw a beaver swimming through the water, they thought it was a crocodile.”

The boys quickly adapted, chasing wildlife around the lake in a canoe and helping their parents landscape—an arduous task that involved clearing logs from the water, trimming the hemlocks, and building a fire pit. The time spent roughing it also enabled the family to envision a structure perfectly suited for the site. There were some environmental constraints—local codes required a 100-foot setback from the lakeshore—but nothing limited their aesthetic choices; to further the rustic feel they opted to place the house 300 feet from their shared driveway. Ardent modernists as well as proponents of green design, Lessard and Dewhirst chose to build a tall house on higher ground further from the water in lieu of clearing trees. The three-story triangular tower both maximized their views of the water and minimized their footprint on the land.

Mindful of the road’s inaccessibility, yet understanding the need for a sturdy structure, the architects chose to construct the frame out of ten-guage steel beams—each ten-foot piece weighting no more than 25 pounds. To ensure that the house wouldn’t blow over in a stiff wind, Lessard and Dewhirst enlisted the expertise of a friend, structural engineer Eric Jokinen. Jokinen’s initial surprise at the choice of building material gave way to admiration, leading him to dub the house, La Tour des Bébelles, in reference to snap-together metal toy sets.

Two workmen helped carry in the beams, then assembled them on-site with nuts and bolts over the course of a month. Wood stud walls and a cladding of stained tongue-and-groove pine helped create the shell of the building. The result, Dewhirst observes, is that the house doesn’t disrupt its surroundings; it “looks like it was plucked from outer space and plunked directly into the forest.”

The interior of the house is as unconventional as the exterior. La Tour de Bébelles has no divisions within: It’s essentially two large, open rooms, each measuring 450 square feet, stacked one on top of the other. A deck was built underneath so that rainy days don’t deter lounging outside on the Adirondack chairs. The only private area in the whole place is the space that contains the shower, sink, and composting toilet, which has been afforded four walls. “As a reaction to Victorian homes, where the bedrooms are light and the lower rooms dark, the bedrooms here are placed below the living area,” explains Lessard, letting people slumber in dim peace, then eat and play upstairs, and outdoors, in the light.

Although the house is rigged up to the electrical grid, everything else about it is resolutely green. All drinking water comes from a well beside the house, and the family collects graywater for use in the kitchen. To protect the lake, they use only biodegradable soaps and truck their laundry to nearby Laundromats or—before their recent move to Vancouver—back home to Toronto. There’s no lawn as such; instead, Dewhirst speaks fondly of some saplings she’s tending. Lessard dragged granite chunks from other parts of the land to create steps up to the house from the lake, cutting a path between the few small areas of grass and wildflowers.

Over the years, the boys have become accustomed to the deer, beavers, loons, porcupines, and other animals that traipse across their land, and, as Lessard boasts, “You can catch fish in the lake with a pail.” It’s an idyllic existence for any earth-friendly folk, although one that the family can’t claim as frequently since they headed west to British Columbia last spring. “We don’t miss Toronto at all,” says Dewhirst. “Our only regret is leaving Otter Lake.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016