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.
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 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.
"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!"
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 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."
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."
Shop the Look
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."
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.
"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."