Marianne Ratte lives in the middle of Montreal with her husband, Eric Nguyen, but was born and raised in Beauce, Que., a rural area where most of the province’s maple syrup is produced. She and Mr. Nguyen love the city – it’s where they are raising their three-year-old daughter, Flavie, and where they’ve established their careers in financial services. Yet, Ms. Ratte has always remained close to her many friends and family back home.
To keep contact with her roots – and because the three-hour drive to Beauce wasn’t manageable for regular weekend visits – she and Mr. Nguyen have recently finished constructing a place exactly half way in the middle, with enough space for large, frequent get-togethers. “We recently hosted 12 adults and 11 kids,” Ms. Ratte says. “We tend to entertain a lot more [at our cottage] than our townhouse in Montreal.”
When they first started looking in 2010, though, they assumed they would simply buy, not build, a second home in an equidistant spot. “We went to all the obvious places in the Eastern Townships,” Mr. Nguyen says. “Bromont, Eastman, Sutton. But everything was either superexpensive, didn’t have a view or was in a really built-up area. We didn’t want to leave the city, only to feel like we were still in the city.”
One day, on their way to a viewing, they got lost looking for one of the townships when they noticed a vacant lot with a for-sale sign. They weren’t in the position at the time to hire an architect or a contractor, but were sold on the views of the tree-covered Appalachian Mountains.
“We waited close to five years to build,” Mr. Nguyen says. “But sometimes, we came with friends to do picnics here, just because we wanted to see the views.”
The scenery is still a standout now that their place is complete. Despite being close to a number of little towns, villages and other vacation homes, the picture windows seem to frame nothing less than virgin landscape. But perhaps what is more impressive is how the design balances seemingly contradictory things.
Fitting to her Beauce upbringing, Ms. Ratte dreamed of an unfussy, convivial place inspired by rustic sugar shacks, such as the one her uncle owns, where everyone gets together around a long communal table, sits on mismatched chairs and warms themselves by a wood-burning fire. Mr. Nguyen, who loves contemporary design (he even built some of the furniture in the chalet, including the concrete-topped kitchen stools and the simple pine bench in the entryway), envisioned something clean-lined and Scandinavian.
In addition, both wanted to accommodate a lot of guests, yet still have a sense of separation for everyone’s comfort. “By inviting people over to our place,” Mr. Nguyen says, “we didn’t want them to be afraid to make noise in the morning or stop partying at night for fear of disturbing us if we wanted to sleep.”
To reconcile their ideas, they considered more than 20 different architects before deciding on ultrapopular studio La Shed. “They brought all our ideas together beautifully,” Ms. Ratte says. “They really listened to us.”
Both inside and out, the house embodies the idea of a sugar shack (albeit a crazy-nice one). There is a pot-bellied stove in the cozy, sunken living room. The gabled roof is a corrugated tin “with wide overhangs that give it the feel of a traditional cabin,” La Shed co-founder Sébastien Parent says. “The simple palette of materials also contributes to the modesty. Particularly the knotty pine, which is used for the floors, the kitchen counters, the walls, the roof joists and the exterior cladding.”
That modesty is counterbalanced by Mr. Nguyen’s desire for Northern European sharpness. “The contemporary vibe is in the architectural details,” Mr. Parent explains. “The size of the windows, the way the surface materials are installed, the overall finishing. At first sight, the chalet is very humble, but the closer your look, the more the sophistication becomes clear.”
The desired separate-togetherness is equally fine-tuned. On the upper level, a discrete door conceals a hidden hallway off of which Ms. Ratte, Mr. Nguyen and Flavie have their sleeping quarters and a shared bathroom. In their secluded garret, a crowd could be in the living room buzzing away, but the only sound would be a muffled whisper.
The three guest rooms are in the basement, which might make them sound dark, except that they poke just enough above the earth to allow for lots of natural light and great views. “We thought about the windows as if they were art pieces,” Mr. Parent says. “We wanted to frame the landscape that Marianne and Eric love.”
Each guest room can accommodate two kids on raised bunks and two parents in a double bed. “The idea is to have one whole family per room,” Ms. Ratte says, noting the extra room beneath the bunks to accommodate luggage. “I wanted that space because people always bring lots of stuff and I didn’t want them to be tripping over their suitcases.”
When it’s time to socialize (which they clearly do a lot, the foyer is roomy enough to hug hi or bye to at least a dozen people at a time, and has the kind of steel-grate floors found in shopping malls that are durable enough for scores of muddy shoes or winter boots), everyone collects on the main floor. People share meals around the custom-built, extra-long dining room table (which, Beauce-style, has a bevy of mismatched chairs), chat in the living room or, weather permitting, lounge outside by the pool.
However, the airy kitchen is also a popular place to congregate and, as much as possible, Ms. Ratte and Mr. Nguyen try to avoid getting stuck behind the stove. They prefer, especially when there are large groups, to bring in a caterer to feed everyone. “Neither of us really likes cooking,” Mr. Nguyen says. “We’d rather be spending the time with our family and friends.”