When Sean Nakamoto decided to build a cottage in Hunstville, Ont., in 2016, his wish list was unusual for the area. In a place where mega mansions prevail, he wanted an intimate 1,800-square-feet escape for his family (smaller than many of the boathouses on the surrounding Muskoka lakes). More importantly, he wanted the job done super-fast. The goal was to be complete within 12 months so that he could enjoy the shoreline views from his secluded peninsula in a proper home, not the Airstream he previously parked on the otherwise vacant lot.
Nakamoto knew the timeframe was ambitious. Several local architects told him that even a compact project would take at least two to three years due to the tight building seasons and shortage of trades in the region. He also knew that expediting would require risks, including an innovative building approach. But his background helped prepare him for the challenge. He’s the co-president of Mohawk Medical, a real estate investment trust that specializes in health-care facilities. As such, “I’m always hearing about new building materials and approaches,” he says. “Architecture has always intrigued me and I love learning about new technology.”
Researching quick construction methods, he figured his best bet was to use a prefab system. “I read a lot about modular buildings,” Mr. Nakamoto says. “They are made in controlled environments, so don’t have to wait for rain and snow.”
He came across a Toronto-based firm, Altius, with substantial experience in prefab. The studio had previously used it to build on difficult sites – craning modules onto a narrow, 12-foot lot in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood, for example, an area that is otherwise hard to build in because of its high density of existing houses. Altius also used prefab on an island in Northern Ontario, where it was easier to assemble the elements off-site and transport it in by barge, as opposed to camping a construction crew in the wildness for long stretches of time.
For the design, Mr. Nakamoto worked with Mike Lanctot, a principal at Altius, who came up with the overall concept within a few months. The plan was to prefabricate a modest, three-bedroom cottage. “I was inspired by Japanese designs and their philosophies of connecting with nature in a humble way,” Mr. Nakamoto says. “I didn’t want huge, 30-foot ceilings that would make me feel as though I was in a giant cathedral.” None of the spaces, including the open-concept kitchen, dining and great room were meant to be large, but each was to have sweeping, panoramic vistas of the lake and its surrounding tree-covered hills.
A separate boathouse topped in a green roof was envisioned – “I didn’t want to look out at a plain black roof,” Mr. Nakamoto says – with a wide dock for when family came for to visit. “My brother, parents, aunts and uncles all live up there,” he says. “So the house is relatively small, but the dock is big for them to come swimming.”
All of which sounds straight-forward, right? Well as Nakamoto, who lives most of the year in Oakville, Ont., discovered, the risk with trying something new in a tight timeframe, is that things don’t always go to schedule.
The original idea was to build the house at a factory in Parry Sound, Ont., an hour west of Huntsville. When ready, it was to be transported by truck, in two large sections, then lowered onto its foundation of predrilled steel piles.
Overall, though, “It’s fair to say that the total project timeline from initial schematic design through substantial completion took about 20 months,” architect Mike Lanctot says. For one thing, the factory in Parry Sound was overbooked and couldn’t accommodate all the work, necessitating that the upper level ended up being built on site (preventing any further delays).
Another issue was that prefab tends to go fastest when all the components are off-the-shelf. But Nakamoto wanted a number of custom touches. The bedroom for his 13-year-old daughter has two, two-level bunks for when her friends or cousins visit. But the beds are also extra-long, in case Mr. Nakamoto hosts a guys’ weekend with his pals and needs extra crash pads for them. The finishes were also finessed: instead of the typical, cottage-y pine, which tends to be yellow-hued and knotty, poplar was picked for most of the walls and doors because of its paler, more calming appearance. The fully bespoke kitchen was then decked in a different wood – hardy ash, re-using lumber that was otherwise felled because of the invasive, emerald ash borer beetle.
“We also had a legal tangle with the neighbours over the boathouse,” Mr. Lanctot said, “which didn’t help anything.” Although Mr. Nakamoto had a permit, one that was grandfathered to the property by the previous owners, the family next door wasn’t keen on the structure obstructing their views so tried, yet failed, to block the project with the Town of Huntsville.
Ultimately, after all the setbacks were resolved and the construction started in early 2018, it only took about eight months before Mr. Nakamoto could relax in his great room, reading a magazine while appreciating the view. It’s just that getting to the start of the construction was harder than anyone could foresee.
“That’s part of being an early adopter,” he says, looking back. “I can see how modular works in theory, but in practices things break down a bit when you try to customize it. Working with Altius was great, though. They were very collaborative, communicative and excited to try new things with me. I was a bit of a guinea pig in this case, but I knew that going in.” And either way, coming out of the experience, he got the intimate cottage he was looking for, to enjoy for untold time to come.
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