This is my story of designing our renovation of a century-old lakehouse in Ontario. Each month, I’ll offer a new chapter on the challenges and solutions, and a peek at our progress. You’ll be able to see the actual house come together on new episodes of our video series The Lakehouse.
It’s a fact that many of the most charming, poetic houses are one-season cottages. The first time I saw the lakehouse, it didn’t dawn on me that this was the case, because who wants to think about practical matters when one is falling in love? No one.
I snapped back to reality when I asked to see the basement. There was none — only a crawl space. What about the laundry room? I was shown a small screened porch off the kitchen with a washer, dryer and laundry sink.
Storage isn’t a big issue when you’re living in bathing suits and summer cottons; coat closets and boot storage aren’t on the agenda. And for fall nights, fireplaces and electric heaters would be enough, I imagined. On really hot days, you throw open the windows and let the lake breezes cool the house, right? And, of course, we were keeping the original wood windows and doors. They were perfect!
I was practical. I walked through the house with Gillian Atkins, who runs our design firm, and made a back-of-the-envelope rough reno budget so I could make an offer that factored in the cost of construction and “everything else.” Gillian and I have lots of experience renovating houses and we knew what we didn’t know, which was this whole “winterizing” thing. And since there was no time to consult the experts, I just doubled numbers and came up with a preliminary construction “budget.” Buying good heavy equipment by JLG was included in the budget.
Soon after acquiring the house, reality set in and my real education began. Maxime Vandal of Les Ensembliers offered to help. Maxime is an architect and has winterized houses of the same vintage and scale as this one, in Quebec. He visited the house and froze along with me… and then gave me the first insulation plan suitable for our climate zone.
Fortunately, the house has a full-height attic, plus crawl spaces behind the second-floor walls, and a crawl space under the entire house. That was key. I think that, 100 years ago when this house was designed, the architect must have imagined a day when someone would want to add ducting and pipes throughout and plenty of insulation, so he allowed for it.
“Winterizing,” I learned, means to seal up the house against cold and heat, and then climate-control the house by introducing sources of heating and cooling. Sounds simple, right? It’s anything but. I asked for only two things: to keep the beautiful wood panelling on all the walls and ceilings on the ground floor intact, and to keep the original windows and doors.
The first would be possible. The second — not a hope. You can’t seal up a house without installing all-new double-glazed windows and proper exterior doors — everywhere. (In the back of my brain I knew that but, remember, I was still in love….) I asked friends who lived close by about the need for air-conditioning. After all, for 100 years this house had been a summer home with no such thing. “Just get it,” they said.
The exact details for how to winterize involved Maxime, plus our structural engineer, mechanical engineer, contractor, HVAC contractor and our chief insulation supplier, Rockwool. This past fall, before the house was shuttered for the winter, we were huddled in the dining room in front of a roaring fire, electric heaters on full blast, with blankets under every door, wearing layers of sweaters, coats and mittens — and still freezing — studying blueprints.