Living by the lake

I met Mike and Alice Ogden almost 25 years ago as cottagers with a summer place next to a little lake near my house.



I met Mike and Alice Ogden almost 25 years ago as cottagers with a summer place next to a little lake near my house.

Like more and more retirees, the Ogdens are now selling their urban home and moving full time to the lake they love.

Less common is the way their compact, cozy lakeside cabin exists in visual and environmental harmony with its surroundings.

The Ogden’s experience proves that it’s possible to build for full-time living, without overpowering the spirit of cottage country. Their example offers pivotal strategies that can help anyone interested in building elegantly and efficiently with minimal environmental and aesthetic impact.After fire destroyed Mike and Alice’s original cottage back in 2005, insurance rules required they rebuild on the same 20 foot x 26 foot footprint of the old, 1940s structure.

Nothing larger was allowed, and this proved to be a blessing. They may not have been able to go longer or wider with their floor plan, but that didn’t stop them from going upwards, following a design philosophy that resulted in almost twice as much usable floor area, without taking up any additional ground.

The key to making better use of the space involved increasing roof pitch to 45 degrees, from the previous 20-degree slope on the old place. This allowed the creation of a second-floor sleeping loft over the kitchen, with a staircase going up through an open, cathedral-ceiling area above the downstairs sitting and eating zone.

After looking at all the options, Mike and Alice opted for structural insulated panels (SIPs) for the entire project. SIPs are factory-made sandwiches of wooden sheet goods glued to an internal layer of foam. Although most commonly used for walls, SIPs also make terrific roofs, especially on narrow building designs, like this one.

The Ogden project is 20-feet wide, allowing 16-foot-long, 8 1/4-inch-thick panels to be used as structural roof members, with no need for rafters or trusses underneath. These panels are entirely self-supporting.

Everything underneath the roof is heatable and suitable for finished living space.

Accomplishing the same space efficiency with a conventional, rafter-framed roof is impossible.

With no basement space to accommodate the electrical panel, pump and water heater, the Ogdens opted for a mudroom at the back of their place.

It provides day-to-day entry, while also offering space for the 200-amp electrical panel, washer, dryer and water heater.

In order to echo the appearance of the main roof, the mudroom roof, though smaller, is also sloped at 45 degrees. And since it’s also created entirely with SIPs panels, there’s lots of open space up above for a mini loft that’s used for seasonal storage. Its got its own insulated exterior door, too, before you step into the kitchen, making it easy to keep washer and dryer noise out of the rest of the cabin.

Although a septic system was technically possible on the Ogden’s site, it would have meant cutting down a large patch of mature pine and poplar trees to create a weeping bed. Since Mike and Alice weren’t prepared to pay such a high aesthetic price for a flush toilet, they saved time, money, disruption and trees by installing a composting toilet instead.

It works perfectly. Water from sinks and the shower go into a grey water pit, leaving the site looking the same as it always has, with no concerns about harming lake quality.

If you’ve been watching cottage country for a while, you know that parts of it are in serious decline as they become more and more like suburbia.

Large buildings and lavish expectations are sapping the life from what was once a landscape of tranquility and refreshment.

Modest, affordable, carefully designed cottages like the Ogden’s show another way, and proves that small can, indeed, be very beautiful.

Steve Maxwell is Canada’s award-winning home improvement expert, and technical editor of Canadian Home Workshop magazine. Sign up for his free homeowner newsletter at

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