This Home in the Ontario Wilderness Is 12 Miles From the Nearest Powerline

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By Alex Bozikovic
An architect designing hospitals in Rwanda first brought sustainability to a lakeside dwelling in Ontario.

Many of us like to get away from it all, but the Murphy family goes farther than most: 160 miles from their house in Toronto to the end of a private logging road deep in a thick wood, where their cottage shares a lake with just three neighbors and wolf packs roam the surrounding wildlife reserve. 

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Large south-facing windows by Loewen and a high-efficiency Rais X wood-burning stove help to reduce energy demands.

Large south-facing windows by Loewen and a high-efficiency Rais X wood-burning stove help to reduce energy demands.

Their home coexists quietly with its environment. The long, narrow roof evokes a portaged canoe, and gray shingles provide camouflage against the mixed forest. This is exactly what owners Vince and Adrienne Murphy, who commissioned the house as they prepared for retirement, were looking for. "There’s a kind of serenity about the place," says Adrienne, a former teacher. "It’s very calming."

There’s a similar atmosphere within, thanks to the cottage’s elegantly simple layout. The porch, kitchen, dining room, and living area flow in a continuous line from west to east, with a wood-burning stove at the center and double-height windows framed in Douglas fir. A set of three bedrooms follows, each with a private view toward Lake Havelock and access to the deck that runs the length of the house. The corridor along the landward side is lined with built-in fir bookcases and cabinets and topped by clerestory windows for cross-ventilation. At one end of the house, a bathtub provides a place to soak and contemplate the forest. (None of the neighbors’ cottages is visible from here, or from anywhere else in the home.)

Vince and Adrienne Murphy’s rural retreat is clad in gray shingles and gray-stained pine. "They wanted the cottage to meld into the woods and be visually quiet," says architect Kelly Doran, who worked with Portico Timber Frames to build the 2,500-square-foot home.

Vince and Adrienne Murphy’s rural retreat is clad in gray shingles and gray-stained pine. "They wanted the cottage to meld into the woods and be visually quiet," says architect Kelly Doran, who worked with Portico Timber Frames to build the 2,500-square-foot home.

"The house is twelve miles from the nearest powerline, so it’s off-grid mainly by necessity. That meant relying on things like cross-ventilation, daylight strategies, and heat-gain reduction." -Kelly Doran, architect

Recessed built-ins made of Douglas fir were milled by TJM Custom Interiors. 

Recessed built-ins made of Douglas fir were milled by TJM Custom Interiors. 

The design was a family affair, conceived by architect Kelly Doran, who is currently a senior director at the Rwanda office of the Boston-based nonprofit MASS Design Group and is married to the Murphys’ daughter, Adrianna. To be more precise, they’re married now; the design process began just a month into their relationship, when Doran was working at SvN Architects in Toronto. "The first time I met my in-laws, they let me design them a house," Doran says in wonderment. "Adrianna and I were on our fourth date, and I convinced them to entrust me with their life savings. I still can’t believe it." The Murphys recall Doran’s pitch fondly: "His ideas were absolutely clear and very strong," Adrienne says. "Being off-grid was really important to us, so we decided to buy in and build on that with Kelly."

The furniture is a combination of family heirlooms and newer items, such as the Hiroshima Woodseat armchairs by Naoto Fukusawa for Mjolk that surround the dining table. Two Glo-Ball pendants by Jasper Morrison hang in the living/dining area, while Drop 1 pendants by Peter Bowles light the kitchen. 

The furniture is a combination of family heirlooms and newer items, such as the Hiroshima Woodseat armchairs by Naoto Fukusawa for Mjolk that surround the dining table. Two Glo-Ball pendants by Jasper Morrison hang in the living/dining area, while Drop 1 pendants by Peter Bowles light the kitchen. 

The cottage is highly sustainable. The tightly insulated structure draws its energy from a nearby bank of solar panels. The water is supplied from the lake and treated with a UV system. Wastewater is processed in a septic tank and leach field. To keep demand down, there is no air-conditioning, and the kitchen has a grill instead of an energy-intensive oven. 

Sustainability is a key part of Doran’s work with MASS, which designs hospitals, schools, and other community-oriented projects in the developing world. But "it’s not the only dimension," Doran explains. "We keep asking the big questions: What do our clients want to achieve? What is it we’re trying to build?" Doran is currently completing several hospital projects in Rwanda and a university library in Uganda.

The cottage stretches for more than 110 feet, with a Muskoka room, or screened-in porch, at the northwestern end.

The cottage stretches for more than 110 feet, with a Muskoka room, or screened-in porch, at the northwestern end.

"I’m very much a visual person, so all that glass was important to me. Every time we go up there, I see something new in the landscape." -Adrienne Murphy, resident

 A perpendicular wing houses the garage. The house has no air conditioning, relying on lake breezes and cross-ventilation for cooling. Each bedroom has a screened door that opens to the deck and an adjustable transom above the hallway door to encourage the circulation of air.

 A perpendicular wing houses the garage. The house has no air conditioning, relying on lake breezes and cross-ventilation for cooling. Each bedroom has a screened door that opens to the deck and an adjustable transom above the hallway door to encourage the circulation of air.

It’s a long way from Kigali to the woods of Ontario, but some principles carry over. The Murphys report that their cottage is doing its job of bringing their family together in grid-free comfort. And design matters. "As professionals, we need to communicate that architecture is not a luxury, it’s a need," Doran says. "Because design can add so much value."  

This Home in the Ontario Wilderness Is 12 Miles From the Nearest Powerline - Photo 7 of 7 -