A Lakeside Canadian Cabin Channels Golden Summer Camp Vibes

A Lakeside Canadian Cabin Channels Golden Summer Camp Vibes

By Mandi Keighran
This family getaway—which is only accessible by boat—has a bunk room below and a mess hall above that takes advantage of spectacular views.

Back in 1987, architect Tom Knezic’s parents bought a plot of land overlooking Kahshe Lake, in the Muskoka region of Ontario, Canada. They built a small "bunkie" on the land and planned to build a lake cabin for family holidays. Then, the 1989 recession hit and their plans were put on hold. More than three decades later, Knezic and his wife Christine Lolley—co-founders of Solares Architecture—have finally designed and built the cabin of their dreams.

"It’s only an hour and a half from the north edge of Toronto," says Knezic. "But, because it’s water access only, it feels like you’re far away from everything—and you have a real sense of isolation."

Over the years, the family had developed the land into an outdoor haven, with various amenities—including a fire pit, slacklines, bike trails, and a hammock zone—built around the bunkie. "Back then, all four of us slept in the tiny bunkie, and I have a lot of memories growing up on this land," says Knezic. "I watched my father build the stairs going up the cliff, and even helped build parts myself."

The site is full of forest and Canadian Shield rock—including a large rock outcrop along the lake that rises up to the height of the second floor.

The intention had always been to build the cabin in a clearing by the lakeshore. However, when the family began to start thinking about building again around 10 years ago, regulations had changed and it was impossible to build so close to the water. "We also realized that if we built there we would destroy the open piece of land that we had been using for gatherings and play for so long."

They considered building at the back of the property, and also discussed replacing the bunkie. "That really upset my mom, though," says Knezic. "By then, my father had passed away and the bunkie represented a very happy period for them. We then looked at ways to expand the bunkie, but none of them worked." After a year of discussion, Knezic’s mother suggested approaching the owner of the neighboring plot of land, which was disused, with an offer to buy.

"One of the most interesting parts of the project was the foundation, as we used ground screws," says architect Tom Knezic. "I’ve never done a foundation like this, but it’s really neat because you just screw into the ground, weld the beam on top, and you’ve got a foundation in two days. It’s a very light footprint, as we didn't have to do any blasting or chipping. We had to remove some trees to fit the cottage in, but we tried to keep as many as possible around the building—by using ground screws, you’re not damaging the roots of adjacent trees."

"All of a sudden, the problem solved itself," recalls Knezic. "We decided to push the cottage to the very north edge of the property to preserve as much of the south edge as possible, and to raise it up on a large rock outcrop. We wanted the building to feel like a summer camp, with a bunk house and a mess hall—so we just put one on top of the other, with a deck leading from the public upper space out over the rock to the very edge. It was all about having an immediate response, and making it as simple as possible. The concept didn’t change, which never happens!"

The entrance to the home is on the ground floor. It’s accessed from a large timber deck, which is separated from a secondary deck by a landscaped gravel area that marks the entry. 

The home was built by the same carpenter who built the original bunkie on the site in the late 1980s. "He was in his early twenties back then, and now he’s nearly retired," reveals architect Tom Knezic. "He does all the water access cottage builds there, because he’s just on the other side of the channel." An external stair leads from the front, ground floor deck up to the deck overlooking the water. 

Knezic’s mother handed complete creative control over to the design team, with a simple brief that called for a place where the family could come together that would last for generations. It was also essential that the home embraced the morning light from the east. "One of my mom’s rituals in the bunkie was to stand in front of the cabin and enjoy the morning sun through the forest," says Knezic.

The entry hall has space to store boots and coats as you come into the home. The flooring throughout is high-quality vinyl that mimics the effect of a timber floor. "At first, I thought, ‘Everything else in this house is wood, how can we do a vinyl floor?,’" says architect Tom Knezic. "But nobody would do a hardwood floor in a cottage, because you don’t heat it all winter and they tend to buckle. The vinyl is a very premium product, and it looks fantastic—but it can freeze and get wet. It was perfect because you don’t have to worry about the kids coming in with wet clothes, or with sand on their feet."

The central stair connects the entry foyer and the upstairs living space. From the landing, there are views out to the surrounding forest. The interior is clad in Ready Pine, a type of prefinished tongue-and-groove panel. "This was one of the biggest expenses," says architect Tom Knezic. "But, it was worth it as drywall will start to flake when it freezes in the winter, and it meant we didn't have the hassle of carrying large sheets of drywall up the cliff. It will also last for generations." The timber casings around the doors and windows were custom stained to match the finish of the Ready Pine.

The experience of the home begins when you arrive at the dock, and cross the landing to the stairs built into the cliffside by Knezic’s father. From here, a path zigzags through the forest toward the house. "You pick up all sorts of leaves, pine needles, and twigs on your feet," says Knezic. "So, we put a pad of gravel between the two lower decks, which acts like a natural doormat to scrape off your shoes as you arrive. It’s important, as it’s meant to be a ‘shoes on’ house."

The ground floor features four bedrooms and two bunk rooms. "They’re the smallest bedrooms we’ve ever made," says architect Tom Knezic. "They’re meant to be a bit like cabins on a ship—just room for a bed and a place to put your personal things." All the bedrooms are interchangeable, and have small windows that look out over the forest. "We had to convince my mum about that because there’s always that idea of having a lake view from the master suite," says Knezic. "But, if you want to enjoy the view you come up to the living area." 

There are two large bunk rooms—one for boys and one for girls—that can accommodate eight children. 

Both bathrooms are downstairs, leaving the upper level completely open with the feeling of a summer camp mess hall. 

A deck leads into an entrance foyer on the ground floor. Six small bedrooms and two bathrooms are located on the ground floor and a central stair leads to the shared living space on the first floor. "I love the contrast between the upper and lower levels," says Knezic. "The ground floor is compact and feels a bit like being on a boat, while the upper floor is as open as possible."

"The upper floor is completely open, and it’s supposed to feel like you’re in a big, really nice tent," says architect Tom Knezic. "It does feel that way when you have all these windows on the south, and the sliding doors on either end of the hall open. You get the breeze through the space, and feel like you’re outside." 

The kitchen opens out into the dining room and living area, and features an island countertop from Caesarstone. The lighting throughout is from Liteline.

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"Normally, we do large windows," says architect Tom Knezic. "But for this project, all the windows had to be carried onto a barge to come across the channel and then carried up through the forest into the building. So, all the windows were made small—especially those south windows, because that’s about the maximum two people can carry." There are large glass doors—which came disassembled—at both ends of the open-plan living space, which allows for a cross breeze through the space.  

The Regency fireplace is from the local building center, where all the materials and fixtures were sourced to accommodate the challenges of building in a remote area. "It’s not a fancy Scandinavian model or anything," says architect Tom Knezic. "It was about finding something that didn’t look old-fashioned at the local building center."

The exterior is a dark timber that allows the home to dissolve into the woods—particularly on the southern facade, where the narrow windows create a vertical rhythm that mirrors that of the trees and breaks up the bulk of the built form. "A lot of older cottages were painted black to preserve the wood," says Knezic. "I really like the look, and it’s effective at hiding the cottage in the forest. It’s very hard to spot from the water."

The front deck overlooks the lake and features an outdoor kitchen, fully enabling an indoor/outdoor lifestyle that reflects the "summer camp" inspiration.

One of the biggest challenges throughout the build was access to the site—all materials had to be shipped over on a barge and carried up the cliffside stairs. This also meant that it took two years (rather than eight months) to complete the build, as the lake completely freezes over in the winter. Fortunately, the home was completed in early 2020 before the pandemic, and the family was able to use the cottage during periods of lockdown.

The west-facing deck extends right up to the edge of the rocky outcrop, offering spectacular views over the water. "The deck is designed to feel like an extension of the house, just without a roof on it," says architect Tom Knezic. "There’s a lot of flow inside and outside." 

"That first weekend that we were all there together, I was in the kitchen and looked around at everyone doing different things—the kids were playing in the forest, there were people out on the deck—and I thought, this is fantastic," says Knezic. "There were so many people coexisting, and everything was working in this really magical way. The building had come to life."

The screened porch at the rear of the property overlooks the forest, and it was a response to the request of architect Tom Knezic’s mother for a space that embraced the morning light from the east. "I got a lot of head scratching from people wondering why you would put a porch on the back—but it’s actually kind of nice to look at the forest, and you get the east light," says Knezic. "It also means we have three aspects, while it’s more typical to have just the single aspect toward the lake." 

Site plan of Kahshe Lake Cottage by Solares Architecture showing how the new lake cottage is positioned in relation to the existing bunkie.

Ground floor plan of Kahshe Lake Cottage by Solares Architecture

Upper floor plan of Kahshe Lake Cottage by Solares Architecture

Site section of Kahshe Lake Cottage by Solares Architecture

Related Reading:

This Award-Winning Cabin Is a Relaxing Antidote to City Living 

This Dramatic A-Frame Cabin Channels Canada’s Rich Maritime History 

8 Outstanding Cabins For Rent in Canada

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Solares Architecture

Builder: Cottage Concepts

Structural Engineer: Canvas Engineering

Lighting Design: Solares Architecture

Cabinetry Design: Solares Architecture

Cabinetry Manufacture and Installation: Muskoka Custom Cabinets

Ground Screw Foundations: Aduvo Systems

Photography: Nanne Springer 

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