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The original cabin becomes the new living room

in this one-of-a-kind home

By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon

Bev McMullen photography

Dave Spolnik tried everything to figure out how to incorporate his clients’ old cabin into their new home on a small finger lake near Torrance.

He thought about turning the cabin into a bunkie or a bedroom, or building a wall from it into the new place. Or perhaps he would dismantle the cabin entirely and use the old logs as accents. But nothing seemed right. It was almost on a whim that the founder of Sprout Studios drew up a plan with the cabin sitting in the middle of the living room.

He expected the clients to be dubious, if not downright derisive. “We presented it to them thinking ‘hmmm,’” he said. “They loved it.”

The cabin was built in 1981 by the clients and their friends, using logs they had cut and peeled on the site. “It was a weekend getaway,” the woman said. “There was no electricity or running water. It was a room with a sleeping loft.”

A large addition later turned it into a more substantial getaway, and then a permanent home, but it was the original cabin that had the most sentimental value. And when the couple had the money to build something new on the site, it was the cabin that had to remain.

Not only did it remain, but it became a dominant element of the house. The cabin doesn’t just occupy the space – where it serves as a living room – it defines and shapes the entire public side of the building, dictating rooflines and ceiling heights, and shaping traffic flow from kitchen to dining room.

Coming up with the idea and selling it to the client was just the first step, of course. Making it work took imagination, creativity, and more than a few discussions.

“Dave told me about the idea for this house and we just piled into it,” said Jamie Veitch. His firm, Veitch Custom Builders of Port Sydney, was the lead contractor on the project. They dismantled the addition and brought in a crane to move the cabin out of the way, then lifted it – freshly stripped and refinished – back onto the foundation, and built a house around it.

Veitch and Spolnik are both great believers in drawing on the creativity of their workers. “Some of the trades in this area are enormously talented,” said Spolnik. “You sling lumber for 30 years and you learn a thing or two.” Veitch’s lead hand, Oliver Burry, became particularly enamored with the project, and helped craft many of the details that make the project work.

Other elements came from the owners – almost all the light fixtures were purchased by the owner – or from other trades on site. “I think the chicken cam is one of the best features,” laughed Spolnik, gesturing to a small screen in the kitchen that links to a closed circuit camera in the chicken coop. Suggested by the alarm technician, it is a point of conversation for every visitor to the house and lets the owner enjoy the antics of her pet chickens at any time of day.

There are numerous other conversation points in the place, too. “The cabin is the elephant in the room, so to speak, but there’s so much else to see as well,” said Spolnik.

There’s the textured clay walls, for example, a hand-plastered earth finish crafted by Sustain of Huntsville which gives the house both visual and accoustic warmth. There are the cast iron ties at the roof peak, custom-designed pieces that are decorative as well as practical. The same custom hardware – made from a combination of standard threaded pipe and industrial connectors – was used to craft ballustrades for the staircase. It’s the sort of detail that’s easy to overlook, but which gives the place visual connectivity.

Noteworthy details are found from the ceiling (heritage barnboard painted white) to the floor (burnt cork in the kitchen, stone in the entry, and painted wood in many other rooms.) The wood was milled locally, giving it radial saw marks that mirror those found in traditional Muskoka homes, then shipped to Toronto to be laminated onto an engineered floor, which allowed radiant heat to be installed under the wood.

The stonework in the kitchen and shower always raises admiring eyebrows. In the kitchen, a dry-laid stone wall wraps around the wood stove, rising nearly two storeys behind the chimney. It’s an impressive piece of workmanship by Signature Stone Masonry’s Shane Spencer, but the back of it is even more impressive. The stone fireplace surround in the kitchen wraps into a wood storage area in the hall before entering a bathroom, where it becomes part of the shower. The curve of the stove surround is mirrored in the shower wall, and protruding stones serve as shelves and even a bench, the stones warmed in winter by the fire in the woodstove.

Once visitors tear their eyes away from the cabin and the stonework, they can’t help noticing the three-inch thick walnut countertop on the island, a massive slab that took eight men to lift into position. Other counters in the kitchen and the adjacent butler’s pantry are Paperstone, a sustainable product made from recycled paper and resin. It’s one of the many green details that reflect the values of the owners, designer and builder. Heat, for example, comes entirely from a massive geothermal system that required drilling four 500-plus foot wells. The roof is made from stuctural insulated panels, which provide tremendous insulation value with no thermal bridging.

Work is still underway on the home – a screen porch and wrap-around deck are among the features to be completed this summer – but the clients are delighted with the results so far. The home is unique and slightly unorthodox, and pulling it off required collaboration and trust.

Spolnik said he didn’t realize just how much trust was involved until midway through the build, when the cabin was in place and the house walls were rising around it. The clients were walking through the house, getting their first look at something they had only seen in blueprints and models. “She said ‘whew! I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I’m glad I do.’”

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