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Muskoka cottage owned by architect Terrell Wong.

Riley Snelling

A book, never, but might one judge a cottage by its cover?

If the cottage is owned by “architect for the environment” Terrell Wong of Stone’s Throw Design, I should think so, since the veteran sustainability expert works wonders with modern cladding. And, frankly, with an e-mail warning me that it’s “all 1985 inside,” I wasn’t about to drive up to the area of Baysville, Ont., to see her Barcalounger.

Perched atop a dramatically sloping piece of Canadian Shield and with a small, dreamy lake at its foot, the split-level cottage was purchased by Ms. Wong and her husband in 2004. And even though “as soon as we bought it, it was designed,” the couple has chosen to take their time with renovations. On the lower level, new rooms, such as a big master bedroom and a games room – both with magnificent views of the lake – sit unfinished. Floors made from rammed earth, which were installed over an inch of tamped dirt and three feet of perlite insulation, await their finish-coat of polish. A second deck off the unfinished master bedroom will be built – in time.

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The couple was going to take their time with new wall insulation and exterior siding, too, until one side of the property suddenly liquefied in July, 2017, during the Muskoka region’s so-called “summer of storms.” Where there had been a quaint, boulder-lined pathway under the side-door trellis, a downburst after days of rain ripped a six-foot-deep trench into the ground while washing the rocky landscaping down the hill.

The cottage under renovation, before the siding was finished.

Terrell Wong

After arranging to have the boulders brought back up and the trellis repaired, Ms. Wong spent the autumn and winter planning. Anything she might do to transform this “ugly duckling,” with its eighties vinyl siding and tall, uninsulated, cinderblock rear façade, would improve its appearance, but she wanted to go further: “If Mother Nature can do what it did to the side of this house, I was doing it right this time,” she laughed. “This is my future retirement home.”

She considered replacing the pink fibreglass batt (which had been a hit with an ant population, who had picked away at it to build nests) with foam, but dismissed it because of the flammability issue; she thought about Roxul, too, but eventually settled on “Multitherm” six-inch wood fibreboard panels by Gutex, which offer an R-value of 23: “Each piece is 50 pounds,” she said. “People are just getting to know it here.”

A metal sill separates the cottage's two types of siding.

Riley Snelling

Once the old siding had been removed, Ms. Wong had a breathable weather barrier (Solitex Mento 1000) taped to the exterior, then the triple-glazed, wood-and-aluminum windows from Vetta Building Technologies with a 6.3 R-value were installed, most in existing openings. The living room’s original sliding doors and transom, which had a piece of non-structural drywall between them, partly blocked the view of the lake; this “irritated” Ms. Wong’s “architectural sensibilities,” so that was dealt with as well.

After the Gutex was installed – it should be noted here that Ms. Wong used green builders the Fourth Pig Green & Natural Construction – two-by-fours, laid flat, were screwed into it; not only did this make the building more rigid, it provided a rain screen and a fresh surface for the new siding to attach to.

“I like a nice pinstripe,” Ms. Wong said as we stood on her driveway, bundled up, staring at the building on a chilly October morning. The pinstripe, in this case, is a long, galvanized metal sill that sits, belt-like, at mid-façade; not only does it provide “a datum [line] around the building to balance,” it allows for a separation point between two types of siding. Below the sill, it’s prefinished Maibec in a dove grey; above, it’s shou sugi ban. Gaining in popularity in North American in recent years, shou sugi ban is the ancient Japanese method of burning the surface of wood (usually cedar), brushing off the carbon residue, and then sealing with a natural oil; the process gives the product an 80- to 100-year lifespan.

“I never thought I would have feelings towards siding until …” Ms. Wong said, pausing for thought, and then giving credit to the Fourth Pig: “I’ve never seen people take so much time to make siding level and sexy and perfect, and I’m like, ‘Oh, is this what it’s supposed to look like?’ I’m so used to the wobbly siding with the dirt on it.”

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The lower-level rooms, featuring views of the lake, remain unfinished.

Riley Snelling

Finishing touches consisted of painting: Since there was no money left to replace them, the original white soffits were done in grey – “The best can of paint I ever bought,” Ms. Wong quipped – which led to the choice of red for the beams.

“We had to have a family discussion on the red beams,” Ms. Wong said, laughing. “I was up there painting away thinking: ‘I have a red door, these would look really good red, do you think my husband would like that? Let’s go have dinner and discuss it.’”

While this spiffy and sustainable new cottage cover hasn’t been installed long enough to calculate cost savings, it was ready in time to wow the crowds during the Ontario Natural Building Coalition’s Natural Homes Tour this past September.

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