When Bill and Linda McMaster met their future son-in-law, Jeff, a few years ago, they realized they had a problem. Jeff, who at the time was dating their daughter Liz, is generally lovely (polite, good with tools), but quite allergic to cats. Any contact with the animal makes his throat close up. He was so allergic that he had a hard time visiting the McMasters’ picturesque, 50-acre farm in Meaford, Ont., where a feline, Nia, prowls the premises.
To ensure Jeff and Liz felt comfortable visiting from their home in Toronto, the McMasters considered several options. They could put up a custom guest house on the property, but it would have been prohibitively expensive (“at least $200,000,” says Bill). They could build a hermetically sealed addition, but didn’t want to mar the farmstead charm of their board-and-batten Victorian home, with its gingerbread trim. Instead, they decided on an increasingly popular option: A pre-fab bunkie, where Jeff and Liz could sleep comfortably and cat-free.
Bunkies are popping up all over the country, from Halifax to Haida Gwaii. They are the architecture of choice for budget-wise owners of homes and cottages who don’t want to move, bulldoze and rebuild, or get into full-on construction projects to meet the needs of their growing broods. With their increasingly contemporary architecture, the little outbuildings are aspirational yet achievable, accommodating and affordable. The bunkie that Linda and Bill bought starts at $22,000.
Most importantly, they generally require minimal fuss – at least, as minimal as you can expect from any building endeavour. At their smallest (just under 100 square feet, the size of a garden shed) they often don’t require a permit or zoning approval. And they can be installed in a weekend or two. After the flat-packed components were offloaded from a truck, it took four full days of work to build the bunkie, says Linda. “We had a contractor, but we all helped. It was really fun, like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle.”
Prep work had to be completed beforehand, including levelling the land in a wooded enclave where the McMasters wanted to install the bunkie. And the couple had to arrange concrete footings for the structure to sit on.
“People tend to hear ‘pre-fab’ and think a structure will magically appear in the backyard,” says Evan Bare, a furniture designer and co-founder of the Bunkie Co., who created the McMasters’ structure. “The reality is somewhere in between. It’s easier than building from the ground up, but still requires some work.”
For the McMasters, the results were well worth the effort. Cool grey cladding offsets warm wood interiors that are flooded with light from a wall of windows. And the layout is ingenious. The bunkie is a hobbit-sized 99 square feet, but it can accommodate sleeping, eating and post-dinner card games because it is so easy to reconfigure. The bed is spring loaded and folds up into the wall with minimal muscle, Murphy-bed style. Meanwhile, a panel above the fireplace pops out and becomes a table. One day, when Jeff and Liz have children, says Bill, “It will make a really nice play space.”
Back in 2015, when the McMasters started searching for a bunkie, well-designed options were limited. Since then, a spate of small-space solutions have appeared, including a line from Toronto-born, Los Angeles-based architect Alexis Rivas and another series by Vancouver-based pre-fab bunkie maker the Backcountry Hut Company, which will install its first pavilions this spring. Even minimalist lifestyle retailer Muji offers a predictably perfect-looking design, though it’s currently only available in Japan.
The new book Small Innovative Houses, written by Philip Jodidio and published by Rizzoli, gives an immediate sense of the myriad options. One diminutive, 86-square-feet box juts out over a pond and, covered in shimmering steel, appears through the reeds hinting at a future when we might all be living smaller, but not less stylishly.
Or unaffordably. Vancouver architect Michael Leckie runs his own, eponymous studio where he makes high-end custom homes. But a few years ago, he was inspired by IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s mission of making good design available to everyone at a reasonable price. Instead of furniture, though, he wondered if there was a way to “develop a system to allow people to self-assemble architecture, and still ensure a successful outcome,” he says.
So he developed a modular system that starts at 100 square feet but grows up to 1,500 square feet. At the smallest scale, a homeowner might construct a stand-alone bedroom, at the largest a fully functional cottage, including a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping quarters. The concept is elegant – warm, Scandinavian-inspired interiors with clean lines and lots of sunshine – and can be assembled by a group of relatively unskilled volunteers. “Though, it would help to have some building experience,” says Leckie. Unlike IKEA, he says, “you can’t assemble one with an Allen key.”
The base price is around $300 per square foot, which would be very difficult to achieve on a custom, ground-up project with the same quality aesthetic. And Leckie plans to lower the price as more people order. The tricky part is that when a structure is larger – typically over 120 square feet for most Canadian municipalities – the bureaucratic building hurdles get higher and “things get caught up in the permitting and zoning requirements,” says Leckie. Of course, if you plan to keep things small and focus on the structure’s style, those restrictions shouldn’t matter at all.
Visit tgam.ca/newsletters to sign up for the Globe Style e-newsletter, your weekly digital guide to the players and trends influencing fashion, design and entertaining, plus shopping tips and inspiration for living well. And follow Globe Style on Instagram @globestyle.