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What is "The Cottage Life" to you?

My husband and I talked about finding a way to have a cottage right from the time we started dating. We are not independently wealthy, so we knew that in order to make this dream a reality, there would have to be compromises made along the way. In 2004 (after we had been married for 11 years,) we bought a 9 acre piece of land on a little lake (about 4 km long by 0.5 km wide) a three hour drive from our house.

It was accessible via a 3.5 km drive down a scary gravel cottage road with a driveway part way into the lot. The lake is small, shallow untouched and the lot was heavily wooded, with a major slope to the lake. The remoteness of the location and the small size of the lake meant that the lot was in our price range. That and the fact that there was no electricity. However, the remoteness and the quietness of the lake is what appealed to us, and the untouched wilderness thing meant there was a lot of wildlife, which was important to us. When we bought the lot, I was 39 and my husband was 37. Our son was 7 and our daughter was 4. This picture shows the extent of the driveway when we bought, which was the only thing man made on the lot.

 

 

We bought a 1973 pop up trailer and camped there until 2007 when we felt the timing was right to build. We had looked at many plans but finally settled on a model from Beaver Homes (Home Hardware). We did make some modifications to the plans, but mostly they had to do with the size and placement of the windows. We knew we were going to do most of the building ourselves, so we stuck to a simple design. A basic rectangle, 3 bedrooms, one bath, 864 square feet. Oh, and we added a storage loft. Our goal was to finish the exterior shell before the snow flew.

A lot of people thought we were nuts. Neither of us is in a skilled trade. We are both handier than most, and had built a few decks, fences, and finished a basement from scratch, but has never tackled a job so large. We decided that we would do whatever we could by ourselves, hire people when we thought safety was a factor, and not be afraid to ask about a million questions. We enlisted help from family and friends by promising them vacations at the finished cottage in trade, but to be honest we just had amazing family and friends who helped regardless. We accepted help from anyone, regardless of age or skill level. This was a family project to us and we wanted to include as many people as possible. If all they could do was hold something while someone else nailed it together, well, that was okay.

We had cleared a driveway to the building site and cut down 14 trees in the summer of 2006 to prepare for the build. The building site was down a steep hill which really is only easily accessible with a 4 X 4 truck. Construction of the footings started in June 2007, late in the season and already behind schedule. This was one of the jobs we didn’t want to do ourselves, but there was a building boom on and we couldn’t get any local contractor to return our calls. Since we were on solid granite and didn’t want to blast, the footings involved lots of steps and some serious math. My 7 year old learned how to tie rebar. We rented a granite drill to tie the whole thing into the rock.

Once the step forms were built we found a concrete pump truck willing to make the harrowing journey to our building site, and then we had footings.

The delivery driver of the concrete blocks for the basement couldn’t navigate the slope of the hill to the building site, so he dropped the 750 blocks needed for the basement at the top of the hill. We loaded the blocks one by one by hand into my brother in law’s jeep, drove them down the hill and then unloaded them at the bottom. It took us 14 hours to move them. I felt like a pack mule.

We hired bricklayers to complete the concrete block basement. Luckily, someone my husband worked with had a brother in law who was a bricklayer. They were willing to travel with their crew. We mixed mortar and provided general labour for them.

Then the framing started. Many friends and family members came and helped. Each stayed as long as they could – some for a week, some for a couple of days. It took a solid 10 days of rotating labourers to frame the cottage. Workers slept in our trailer or in tents.

 

We had the roof joists engineered, so we could have a cathedral ceiling in the cottage but because of the accessibility of the building site, each one had to be carried down the hill by hand and then hoisted up onto the roof, also by hand. I felt like a pack mule again.

The wall sheathing wasn’t applied before putting the walls in place because we didn’t have enough manpower to lift them into place if they had been done that way. So, after the framing was done, we applied the sheathing and the house wrap. Applied the water membrane around the basement, installed the weeping tile and hired a backhoe operator to do the back fill.

By the time we were finished this step, we were really being pushed by the timeline. Our pop up trailer had no heat. It was getting too cold to stay overnight and it was too far to drive to work for only one day. We had to admit that we couldn’t finish the shell on our own before the snow started, so we hired a contractor to install the windows, the metal roof and the siding.

We barely made it before the snow fell.

Since that summer, we have been working at a much slower pace. We go to the cottage most weekends from May to November. In May and June we work on the weekends, July and August we don’t. September we work if the weather is bad or if we feel like it. Usually it is just my husband and I doing the work, once in a while someone comes for a weekend and gives us a hand. We constructed the interior partition walls the next summer. We did the wiring ourselves so we can hook up to a generator when we want to (which we rarely do) and then had an electrician come and check it and install the panel (after we had fixed the mistakes he pointed out to us). We did the insulation and vapour barrier ourselves. Put up all the drywall and we are about 90% done the taping and sanding. Installed interior doors, built a porch, built stairs to the loft. Had a woodstove installed and had propane lines run for our propane fridge and stove. We felt it was important to hire professionals for these two things especially.

One of the bedrooms

This year we are trying to have a septic system put in which means we have been tiling the bathroom, and installing plumbing fixtures. Again, the septic will be installed by a professional. (What do I know about septic systems? That is something you want done right.) We figure it may take us another 5 years to finally finish the interior, allowing for the fact that we are not getting any younger and seem to be spending more time relaxing at the cottage and less time working. But isn’t that what it’s all about?

Some people still think we’re nuts. Our version of cottaging is not like the “cottage lifestyle” a lot of people think about. We have a canoe and a little tin fishing boat with a 6 hp motor we bought used. We haven’t cleared any of the undergrowth around the cottage except for a path to the lake. We don’t even have a dock. Our place will never be luxurious. It’s cozy and it has “us” written all over it. The fishing is amazing and the wildlife is still plentiful. Even on a long weekend, there might be one or two other boats on the lake. We don’t have a TV. Our family connects with each other while we are there, and we spend our evenings playing games and cards by oil lamps. My daughter (who is 12 now) turned to me the other day while we were there and said out of the blue “I love it here”.

Exactly what I was thinking.