“I’m always telling people that homes are the places where we stage our lives,” said architect Eric Odor, design principal at SALA Architects. “You find out how people live — what they need — and you set the stage to celebrate all that.”
Sounds simple, except that Huron Haven, a 1,700-square-foot vacation cottage that Odor completed at the end of summer 2019, is set on a shallow peninsula in Ontario. The international project presented special challenges to Odor and his team.
Although the home was new construction, it was built within an existing footprint. The owner, conservationist and nonprofit adviser Peter Weekes, did not want to go bigger.
“It took me a good three years to get to the decision to tear down and rebuild,” said Weekes, who recently moved from Minneapolis to Boulder, Colo. “It was out of reverence for the family that owned it, including a member of Canada’s federal parliament, and a reverence for the land.”
Weekes’ family has been vacationing in the area for a century. Many of his family traditions are tied into their time running, hiking, fishing and taking in the rustic beauty of Desbarats (pronounced DEB-ra) and nearby Sault Ste. Marie, memories that shaped his life.
“The American presence up there can be traced back to a number of Chicago families,” Weekes said. “Like many resorts, somebody went, discovered a cool place and invited their buddies up. Phoenix, Montana and the west coast of Florida are chock-full of Minnesotans in the same way.”
If the cottage were new, it would not have gotten a permit because of its proximity to the water, Weekes said. “But it was grandfathered in. We had to honor that history while setting stage for new memories.”
The previous structure was failing, which made his decision easier.
“It was a rubble foundation — a trench in the ground dug by hand and filled with rocks and poured Sakrete,” Weekes said. “The whole thing had been undermined by tree roots and had really crumbled away from decades of hard winters. The electric wiring needed to be redone to meet code.”
Within that footprint, Weekes wanted something comparatively modern, modest and open.
“That’s because for me, being there is 90 percent about the experience and 10 percent about the space,” Weekes said. “I’m so connected to the wind out there, and the experience of wind on the water. When I arrive after I’ve been gone a while, that’s the first thing I pick up on — the interplay of wind and water and waves.”
A perfect fit
He charged Odor with designing a retreat that worked in harmony with the outside. It had to look like it belonged in nature and enhance the natural aspects, all while somehow seamlessly connecting house to land to water.
“The prevailing winds are northwest and southeast. Where do I want to sit when there’s a northwest wind, which is cooler?” Weekes said. “I spent a ton of time going over there and having my morning coffee.”
The breeze — which Weekes also likes to shoot — was a big consideration in the design of the house, a two-bedroom structure that has a great room for festive gatherings. In a departure from the old structure, he had a screen built to enclose the porch on the house’s west side.
“The screen porch looks right into the prevailing northwest wind,” Odor said. “For that reason, we needed to have a physical restraint. Somebody could stumble and fall against the screen and hit the ground. Instead of a metal railing, we did it in glass. It’s subtle but extremely functional, creating a 100 percent windbreak.”
Odor has done lots of work in the corporate sector, including designing boardrooms at Cargill and commercial buildings. But he prefers working in the residential sector.
“People come to you with life savings and say, ‘Make my dream come true,’ ” he said. “It’s holistic, and you get to do things from top to bottom.”
And they come with ideas of what they want. “You always play out the preconception, then you show them what the possibilities are,” Odor said. “They always choose the possibilities. They just didn’t know that that was possible.
“If you’re doing a new home, you’re like an auteur filmmaker — you make all the rules and can change them on a whim. If you’re doing a redo, you don’t have that liberty.”
Huron Haven was a little bit of both. Because of the site constraints, “we had to keep the volume the same, and couldn’t have a second story,” Odor said. “The old one had a flat ceiling and was really dark.”
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the E.H. Pitkin Cottage on nearby Sapper Island. The fame of the architect influenced the architecture of many of the structures in the area, even though flat roofs are not the best for an area that gets a lot of snow.
Acknowledging the past
Odor nodded to that history but changed the roof pitch a little. And the roof is taller, with 7-foot glass ceilings.
“The roof got higher because it’s very thick with insulation,” Weekes said.
They paid homage to the old structure by replicating the chimney, putting the fireplace in the same spot as the old one. They also put the deck on the west side of the structure, except now it is covered with a screen.
And they used parallel chord trusses with no bottom chords to cover the most dominant feature of the structure: a 28- by 28-foot great room. That vaulted space, envisioned as a site of gathering and conviviality, is connected to the timber porch by a steel beam.
“The great room is pretty deep in the middle and a long way to the exterior, which can present a challenge to lighting,” Odor said. “When you’re lighting open plans, you don’t want to have a million switches, but you want to light things and get to the other side of the room.”
Odor contrasted lighting plans with music, “where you start at the beginning and go to the end. With lighting, you start anywhere.”
The solution? Four enormous skylights with rain sensors.
The team was also mindful not to create any light pollution in a place where folks watch the sky at night.
“The exterior lights don’t shine up, to keep everything dark for those who want to see the Aurora Borealis,” Odor said.
Interior design cues
If the structure is a stage, then the furnishings help to give it spirit.
“A house is a living thing with a soul,” said Lucy Penfield, design principal, Lucy Interior Design.
For Huron Harbor, Penfield asked Weekes a number of questions to gauge his sensibility.
“Is he bold and colorful? Spirited with a lot of energy, or is he calm and quiet?” Penfield said. “Peter’s cabin is earthy and organic. It comes out almost like a tree would. It’s a biophilic design — the landscape informs the materials, interior furnishings and colors.”
Penfield foraged in the nearby woods to create the interior palette.
“The thing to remember is take a lesson from the land,” Penfield said. “When you’re thinking about how you want to update your house, look around and take cues from the site. Sometimes as designers, we muck it up or put a trend in or our own signature.”
Penfield previously had designed for Weekes, whom she’s known for 40 years, but this is the first time she’s done a complete makeover.
“The stone was the natural stone from the local quarry that’s on the fireplace,” Penfield said. “The Douglas fir paneling has no staining. All our fabrics were earthen — wools and linens and cotton. The view, the sightlines, we watched the sunrise from the bedroom and the kitchen. Then you wrap around to the sunset on the western shore where the amazing porch is. We really followed the sun throughout the day.”
Weekes hasn’t seen the family cabin since February. Canada closed its border to Americans on March 21 because of the pandemic. “It was essentially completed around Labor Day of last year,” Weekes said. “Here’s this bright, new shiny object that I haven’t been able to enjoy.
“I modernized it and had some fun and did some playful things but really respected the site.”
Now, if only he and his dog, Luna, could get back there.