When Aaron David and Orlee Wertheim decided to build a lakeside cottage in Prince Edward County, a rural community two hours east of their home in Toronto, the couple knew they would offset the construction and carrying costs by putting the place on Airbnb. What they weren’t necessarily sure about was how to stand out in an area already saturated by vacation rentals. In 2019, 1,500 homes in Prince Edward County, or nearly 10 per cent of all houses, were available for short-term lets, according to the municipal government.
“We didn’t see a lot of well-designed contemporary homes,” says Ms. Wertheim, owner of Coco Market, a trendy food shop in Toronto. “It’s what we would want for ourselves. We just couldn’t find it elsewhere on the market.”
The couple figured that if they built the missing modern, others would be interested as well. The strategy initially proved fruitful. When construction finished in spring 2020, the house was “booked solid,” said Mr. David, with rental fees as much as about $900 a night. However, more recent provincial stay-at-home orders have temporarily halted rentals, and the couple are staying there themselves.
On the surface, the house doesn’t look terribly different than the many century-old farmsteads dotting the surrounding fields. The overall shape, conceived by Montreal architecture office RHA Works in collaboration with Toronto-and-Maine-based AAMP Studio, borrows from local barns, with pitched roofs over long, simple boxes.
To the well-honed eye, the exterior siding provides the first clue that the house is unique. It’s clad in shou sugi ban – planks of cedar, charred using a Japanese technique that brings out the wood’s natural insect-and-rot resistance. The boards, sourced from a company called Blackwood Siding Co., north of Prince Edward County in Ontario’s Addington Highlands, are not only more durable than typical, unfinished cedar, they have a rich, distinct aesthetic. “From afar, they look solidly black,” says architect Anne-Marie Armstong, who worked for Frank Gehry before co-founding AAMP. “The closer you get, there is a beautiful variety in the tones, almost a shimmer. The appearance changes every time you look at.”
For the design team, one of the challenges was creating a custom home to suit both Mr. David and Ms. Wertheim, as well as all the potential tenants whose needs they could only guess at. “At the beginning, I gave Aaron and Orlee a lot of homework,” says Ravi Handa, founder of RHA Works. “I basically asked them to think through all the things the house would need, in terms of rooms and programming, as well as all the ways the house might be used.”
“We played through many, many possibilities and scenarios,” Mr. David says. “We really tried to envision how guests would arrive, unload their groceries, unload their things, inhabit each space. We had a lot of fun doing it.”
The forethought is partly why the house has its character defining, L-shaped layout. One end of the L contains four bedrooms, arranged one after the other down a long, window-lit hallway. The other end has the kitchen, dining and living areas, white-walled but made warm with touches of light wood. The separation of more public and private areas solves a typical cottage conundrum – how to balance social time with friends and family, with the need for the peace, quiet and solitude that probably inspired the rural getaway in the first place. (There was a second reason for the L: it buffers the prevailing north winds, sheltering a patio area that faces south over adjacent Lake Ontario.)
A roomy, glass-walled vestibule hinges the two arms of the L together. A few steps from the end of the driveway, it’s an easy spot to unpack a car stuffed with all the things city escapees tend to bring. To one side of it, it leads directly into the kitchen pantry, with storage for chips and marshmallows and bottles of whatever. To the other side, the bedrooms, all on the same level, so no suitcases need to be hauled up stairs.
Throughout, the cottage is kept simple, with just a few pieces of furniture (sourced by Toronto design consultant Meg Cassidy), and subtle-but-hardy materials, like stone kitchen counters. “I’m not saying renters don’t care about the place they are staying,” Mr. David says. “But I wouldn’t put it past someone to think, I’m in a rental, now is the time to try deep-frying for the first time in a vat of spattering oil.”
Instead, the charm of the place comes down to more elemental pleasures. The beauty of the wood grain in the ceiling. The crackle of the fireplace in the living room. The windows were particularly well placed to capture the natural environs. In the dinning area, a large picture window punches the wall above the table, framing a tableau similar to a pastoral painting: a neighbouring farm, a few trees and bushes, big blue skies with fluffy white clouds. Every now and again, maybe just to keep things real, a car drives by.
Because the house was completed last spring, in the most uncertain days of the pandemic, Mr. David and Ms. Wertheim had a moment of wondering if they should sell the property. They weren’t sure if their plans to rent would fall through under the looming lockdowns, or how much use they themselves would be able to get out of Toronto. “We honestly didn’t know what we would do, or what was going to happen,” Mr. David says. “Then we spent a night in the house. Looking out at the night sky from our bedroom, seeing all the stars, seeing the lake in the distance. That made us think no matter what, this is it, this is ours.”
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