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A Hawaiian-inspired bungalow in cottage country

Morokai is architect Joseph Moro’s modernist interpretation of a Hawaiian house, set deep in the heart of Muskoka.

Daniel Dutka


Thankfully, this isn't the greeting on arrival at Morokai, a Hawaiian-inspired cottage on Muldrew Lake in Muskoka. And, mercifully there's no sign of the bright lights and fast cars that jockey for attention in a certain Pacific island TV cop drama, either.

Instead, the cottage is a modernist surprise. A metal roofed, charcoal-grey form, nestled among the pines. Unassuming and yet intriguing at the same time; its delights, and Hawaiian inspirations, only revealed once inside.

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The moniker, Morokai, is a combination of the designer/owner Joseph Moro's family name and the Hawaiian term kia, meaning "by the ocean." Mr. Moro, a senior design architect with a multinational practice, worked in Honolulu for three years in the mid-1990s and lived in a Hawaiian ranch-style bungalow in Kailua.

He explains: "We were near the ocean. There were palm trees and wonderful cooling trade winds that would blow right through the house; a single-storey, ranch-style home, with a big lanai that we really loved. We were inside but outside, a revelation in living style to me."

Returning home, Mr. Moro had a hankering to build a modern take on his Hawaiian house.

A yearning only accentuated by his long-time dream of owning a cottage: "My Dad never saw the point in a cottage. He always said: 'Why spend time fixing up two homes!'" he says with a laugh.

Searching online, the family found the property on a spit of land projecting out into Muldrew Lake. Its north-south orientation was perfect and Morokai takes full advantage of the wonderful site in its own unconventional manner.

Far from designing a traditional Muskoka cottage, Mr. Moro has created what he likens to a utilitarian shed. Rectilinear in form, it could be viewed as a nod to traditional Hawaiian long houses but the aesthetic is unmistakeably industrial in places: The massive timber columns and beams are held together with chunky metal brackets and large bolts; cross-bracing to the structural timbers is provided by tensioned steel cables; and the steel tube conduits that carry wiring for the lighting are exposed, too. But, entering through the timber-clad rear of the house, the factory functionality is not the first thing that hits you. Instead, the glorious view through telegraph-pole pines and a haze of underbrush to Muldrew Lake is stunning.

Almost the entire 80-foot eastern façade of this 2,500-square-foot house is clad in glass. The only part not glazed is the transparent screen wall of the Muskoka room. It is as if you are standing in the forest; albeit a forest with a handy Caesarstone kitchen island to the left, a sofa and a beautiful fireplace to the right.

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Even on a hot day the house is cool, thanks to the roof that extends five feet beyond the walls to shade the interior and the impressively high ceilings, which allow warm air to rise above the habitable zone and be drawn out of the building via clerestory windows.

"I have the Hawaiian house and the trade winds, plus my architectural training in Europe to thank for that aspect of the design," says Mr. Moro. "I studied the villas of Palladio and saw how he used room height to deal with heat in buildings."

The airy Muskoka room seats 12 for dinner and features a fire (one side of a double-sided fireplace) to roast marshmallows on the buggiest of evenings. The 40-by-25-foot main living space, or great room, is book-ended by a rough-hewn ledge stone wall, home to the fireplace, at one end and the smooth glazed white marble tiling of the kitchen at the other. The transition from one to the other is tempered by the slate floor; its colour complementing the dark tones of the lake.

The kitchen itself is as crisp and concise as the rest of the design and, if not pointed out, no one would know it came from Ikea.

A corridor leads off to the private quarters: Two compact kids' bedrooms, a bathroom, painting studio cum guest room and utility space. Value has been attributed to the most used, most enjoyed areas of this house and, as such, these rooms are basic without being uncomfortable.

The same goes for the master suite to some extent. It's no palatial boudoir but Mr. Moro has allowed for certain aesthetic and environmental pleasures. The room is as tall as it is wide; the ceiling rising to 16 feet while full-height windows provide exquisite views of the lake.

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"I like the idea of all this air above me when I lie in bed – space to breathe," he says, "and my partner loves waking up to the sparkling reflections of the sunrise on the lake."

And this simple statement perhaps best sums up the ideals of Mr. Moro's cottage design. It is a building in which to experience everything that surrounds it: A masterfully executed modernist interpretation of an everyday Hawaiian home.

Squint and those pine trunks could be palm trees.

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