CUSTOM BUILDING – Part Seven: Guest Cottages
By Mary Lee Zimmer & Brian Hoar
Accessory buildings such as cabins, bunkies and guest cottages have long been a tradition throughout Muskoka.
They range from very simple one-room cabins to sleep children and their friends, to luxurious living space for guests.
They offer solutions for growing families, or the influx of weekend visitors that the main cottage or home wasn’t intended to accommodate on a year-round basis.
Privacy for guests, or young families staying with small children, whose lifestyle differs from the hosts is particularly well addressed with accessory buildings.
And who hasn’t experienced hearing impaired teenagers with questionable tastes in music and sleep patterns synchronized with owls? Been there.
Different bunkies for different reasons
“Some build small bunkies as playhouses for their children,” states Chris Ember of Cottage Country Construction. “One client built a 10-foot by 10-foot building, complete with a copula for his daughter. Included on-site were a miniature size tennis court and a small pitching green. It’s like a little Santa’s Village.”
“Some bunkies are simply sleeping cabins without a bathroom,” adds Brian Higgins of Cottage County Communications. “They are generally placed away from water activity where it’s conducive to sleep.”
Tom Campbell of Ed Campbell Construction says, “I just finished a guest cottage they call the “get-away place.” It’s located right on the water, in a private little cove, down the shore from the main cottage. It’s a rustic cedar-lined bunkie where the parents go to hide away from the family. They have no power. They use kerosene lanterns and flash lights and the only furniture is a queen size bed.
“Another bunkie I built had a cedar sauna, a screened-in Muskoka room, a change room and a little bedroom. They had an outdoor shower and around the back there was a hidden away beach.”
Campbell adds, “In one case, we joined the guest cottage to the main home with a covered walkway. In dirty weather they could walk out of the sunroom and take this covered walkway to the guest cottage.”
It’s not uncommon for large cottages to be closed down for the winter and the guest cottage used for winter activities on weekends.
“We have had clients who want to be able to shut down the main cottage in the winter, because of the energy consumption, and keep open for use the smaller guest cottage,” says Scott Clark of Edenlane Homes.
“When they come up to the area to snowmobile or ski, they want a place to store their equipment and to stay at the flick of a switch. They want a bedroom, bathroom and a little sitting area to enjoy the Muskoka environment.”
Other guest cottages are simply closed down – water drained and heat turned off – waiting for the next summer season’s visitors.
A guest cottage may be an option for smaller lake frontages and municipalities that do not permit a two-storey boathouse.
Small guest cottages, as with boathouses, present design challenges to utilize every square foot of space within the envelope. Will you have two bedrooms or one? Will you sacrifice living area for a larger bathroom?
These are difficult decisions with only 650 sq. ft. of floor area and even tougher decisions with 500 square feet to juggle.
Guest cottages do however, offer a little more scope in location and landscaping possibilities. Stone patios and cedar decks can increase outdoor living areas. Though it should be noted that in some municipalities deck areas count as coverage.
Stone fireplaces and stone facings are nice options not commonly found in guest cottages. Dormers, gables, arched windows are all architectural touches that may be applied to the
guest cottage to tie in to other buildings on
“We incorporate the design of the main cottage in the accessory buildings,” Clark says, “so that all structures on the property appear cohesive and aesthetically pleasing. We use lots of windows because in Muskoka people want to see out and not be contained. They want to experience nature.” He adds, “Wood siding with beautiful trim incorporating dormers and gables make the outside look old as if it has been there for 50, 60, 70 years.”
Well-planned plumbing and sewage disposal becomes much the same as the main residence. Heating options are more achievable with a warm basement or crawl space to run ductwork, plumbing and hot water tanks.
“I like to get creative with bunkies,” explains Brock Watson of Discovery Dream Homes. “Because the bunkie is not part of the main house it doesn’t have all the specific requirements that a main house has, so you can really let the creative juices flow and have some fun with it. For example, lofts with a drop-down ladder, different rooms that open up onto each other to create one big space or be divided into multiple little spaces, and multiple purpose rooms – a living area with a pullout bed to maximize sleeping arrangements.
“Timber frame and log options are versatile,” continues Watson, “and, rather than overwhelming, add character and warmth to a small house.”
James Pitropov of Smiths Architect Inc. has done a lot of work using timbers.
“There has been a resurgence of timber construction,” he says. “Our clients seem to be looking for an elegant, refined version of working with timbers. We’re moving away from the super heavy chunky timbers and doing more post and beam, and, double post type structures.”
He continues, “We have created structures with open frames that extend to the exterior resulting in big, covered outdoor areas. More than a porch, it actually becomes part of the house – outdoor spaces that are covered and link different parts of the cottage.
“My move now,” states Pitropov, “is working towards making cottages more than a box with a roof, but rather different living spaces as being sort of pavilions united under a common roof with a breeze way and outdoor elements, such as Muskoka rooms.
“We’re using more coffered ceilings and pulling away a little from the big cathedral ceilings. Guest cottages are becoming more customized and in the long-run we are hoping that our buildings are going to become more and more craft-like and have that feel of being handcrafted.”
Recent bylaw changes
Recent bylaw changes in the Township of Muskoka Lakes, for instance, have impacted boathouse construction and favour guest accommodations built on land. There is however, a minefield of restrictions and limitations that vary with each municipality throughout the region. Lot coverage, setbacks, height and use all come into play. What is permissible in one area is not possible in another.
Size varies from 250 sq. ft. to 650 sq. ft. Heights are all over the map. Some may have limited kitchens; others may have no kitchens at all. Lot coverage is a common factor but varies in percentage. Other existing buildings and their uses may influence whether or not it’s possible to add a guest cottage.
Buildings erected before current bylaws
“One client, about 10 years ago, before the current bylaws came into effect, built an elaborate guest cottage plus a boathouse with living quarters,” Ember recalls.
“In the living quarters he has a fridge, coffee maker, microwave, shower and bathroom. He doesn’t see his guests ‘till noon hour and that’s what he likes!”
Built before the rules were changed, he can keep both the guest cottage and boathouse living quarters. It’s called legally nonconforming.
“Another residential site with buildings erected in 1910, has four bunkies, one 20 feet from the water’s edge, plus living quarters over the boathouse. They can remodel them if they choose,” explains Ember, “but they can’t change any footprint.”
Obviously, professional advice from lawyers, surveyors, planners, realtors and builders, together with good previous site planning will eliminate unpleasant surprises in the area of what can and cannot be done.
For long-time property owners contemplating building an accessory building of any description, a visit to the planning office or chief building official will reveal the latest changes to local bylaws that govern building in Muskoka.
Further help from knowledgeable builders, designers, architects and surveyors to calculate those all-important lot coverages will really pay off.
The process of wading through different and ever-changing bylaws, new building codes and other intimidating issues is quickly becoming the realm of professionals. Permits and building can still be a pleasure when left to the experienced people in Muskoka who know best what is possible and what is not.