The listing: 605335 Sideroad 13A, Grey Highlands, Ont.
Asking price: $1,100,000
Taxes: $4,848.00 (2016)
Lot size: 50 acres
Agents: Geon van der Wyst, Royal LePage Real Estate Services Ltd., and Reid Hilton and Gail Crawford, Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd.
The back story
Patricia Rockman and Bryan Moran had searched a long time for a country property when they finally found the right mix of rolling fields, wetlands and forest in one 50-acre parcel in Ontario’s Grey Highlands.
The two are doctors and avid nature lovers who enjoy being outdoors in all seasons. They are also deeply interested in the principles of the influential architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander.
The couple purchased the land, which had been carved out of a 100-acre farm near the town of Markdale, Ont., and began making plans with a builder to construct the house.
They would be guided by Mr. Alexander’s books – including The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language – which describe a vision of architecture that looks into the future but also draws on ancient traditions.
But driving through the countryside a few weeks later, they saw a “for sale” sign in front of an 1855 log cabin.
“We stumbled across one of the log cabins erected on the side of Airport Road,” Dr. Moran says. “That had us change direction.”
The building, which originally stood in nearby Neustadt, Ont., was about the size and shape they had already planned for the master-bedroom wing. Their contractor tried to discourage them from incorporating the cabin into their design, Dr. Moran recalls. He was worried about the lack of right angles and straight lines in the antique structure. But the couple appreciated the heritage quality and embraced the principles of sustainability and using reclaimed materials.
So the couple parted ways with that contractor and brought in Victor Snow – an Orangeville builder with a zeal for conserving heritage buildings – to shepherd the project. Mr. Snow located another log cabin from the 1850s in Bracebridge, Ont. They decided to make that a second wing of the house. They worked with architectural technologist Pamela Farrow, who helped them with plans to join the two cabins in the middle with a timber-framed great room.
Steven Vassallo was brought in to tackle the landscaping soon after the house was built.
“Ten years ago, this was just a meadow,” he says of the land.
This craggy landscape south of the Bruce Peninsula was not very hospitable to the pioneers who cleared it for agriculture, Mr. Vassallo adds.
“This is rough land from an agricultural point of view.”
Over the years, small family farms have endured increasing struggles in the face of big agriculture. As many farmers moved on, city dwellers bought up properties for ski chalets and country homes. The undulating hills and stony terrain make the area popular area for walking, hiking and skiing today. Also, those small farmers who grow vegetables to sell at market or for community-supported agriculture favour the area because it hasn’t tended to draw the big operations that use pesticides and chemicals.
“There’s not a lot of spraying going on,” Mr. Vassallo says.
The more organic approach creates a better environment for the weekend visitors, too, he points out.
Once the house was complete, Mr. Vassallo spent a winter getting to know the terrain and mulling over sightlines, then set about building fences and digging gardens. He has been a steward of the land and gardens ever since.
The house today
During one sojourn in the area, the couple were out hiking with friends and came across a lovely little house sitting in the landscape. They knocked on the door and introduced themselves to the occupants, who invited them inside.
“Do you know who Christopher Alexander is?” they asked. “Of course,” the reply was.
Somehow in this rural area, they had come across another couple who had designed their house along the same principles. The meeting and visiting the other house also reinforced to the couple that they were on the right path.
“It’s not large, it’s not pretentious. You walk into it and you feel magic,” Dr. Moran says.
They, too, wanted to create a dwelling that ignores grandeur and instead focuses on the way people want to live, Dr. Rockman says. The couple studied the way the sun moved during the day and designed the house to take best advantage of the light.
The two pre-Confederation cabins were integrated into the design of a 5,000-square-foot house with three full bedrooms and bathrooms.
Three additional spaces can be used to increase the number of bedrooms to six.
The large, arched entry doors were reclaimed from a Caledon church. Many other elements are contemporary.
“We really didn’t want this heritage house – it’s a mix of new and old,” Dr. Rockman says.
She points out that the timber-frame great room in the middle is designed to feel cozy and comfortable rather than cavernous. The kitchen’s heated concrete floors, stainless-steel appliances, soapstone countertops and steel and glass shelves are a blend of traditional and new materials.
The kitchen, she adds, has a large window looking toward the road so that occupants can always see visitors approaching the house. It also faces a large garden of herbs and vegetables, and an orchard of apple trees rescued from a development site and transplanted on the farm.
The kitchen is well-designed and the prep areas are open to the dining and living areas so the chefs never feel isolated.
“It’s a very social kitchen,” she says. “When you’re entertaining, you can still be really involved with all the people.”
The house encourages intergenerational living and interaction between people, Dr. Moran points out. Knee walls provide extra storage space, but they also created tunnels for the couple’s three children to scoot through, for example. A rustic wooden ladder up to a loft is fun for kids to climb.
The house is full of details such as changing floor and ceiling levels, curves and reveals.
“What’s around that corner?” Dr. Moran says of a change in direction. “It creates a comfort and an interest.”
There are also small nooks everywhere “because people gravitate towards alcoves for comfort,” Dr. Moran says.
Mr. Snow’s son, stoneworker Reed Snow, built the fireplace in the great room and some of the stone fences outside.
On the lower level, lots of cubby holes were created for storing ski boots and snow shoes and other gear. Beaver Valley Ski Club is a short drive away.
Outside, Mr. Vassallo has cut walking trails throughout the property. There is a wetlands, a pond and a stand of hardwood trees. Adjoining conservation lands are preserving the area’s flora and fauna.
Mr. Snow was also able to locate an old barn, which has been rebuilt on the property. Dr. Rockman and Dr. Moran had planned to hold their wedding in the meadow, but the remnants of a hurricane were whipping through the area at the time so they had the ceremony and party in the barn instead.
Meanwhile, over the years the family became good friends with Tita Ang-angco and Tim Warner – the couple who first showed them their own small house.
Dr. Rockman and Ms. Ang-angco later went on to establish the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, which offers retreats in the country for people wanting to learn about mindfulness and meditation.
The master-bedroom suite is formed from one of the original settlers’ cabins.
“The space feels fantastic,” Dr. Moran says. “You’re surrounded by the logs.”
A set of doors faces east and opens to a small porch, where the couple often have coffee while watching the sun rise.
Above the bedroom, a loft area provides a serene space for yoga and meditation.
A large bathroom has a walk-in shower and a deep tub next to a window overlooking the fields.
Just outside, a Jacuzzi whirlpool bath is set in the ground and surrounded by rocks and low shrubs.
“It’s very private,” Dr. Rockman says.
Follow Carolyn Ireland on Twitter: