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Northern Woods Retreat

Way out in the wilderness of Ontario, a curiously shaped house bends along a tricky ridge.

Dwell, Jan 29, 2018

It was always about the dogs. Toronto veterinarian Mark Dilworth and lawyer David Bronskill hadn’t even considered building a cottage until they saw how excited their rescue dogs, Stanley, AJ, and Piglet, were when they visited Mark’s sister’s place on Haliburton Lake in secluded Central Ontario.

Soon they found themselves scouring real estate listings in the area, but the standard 100-foot-wide lots were too close to their neighbors. As Mark puts it, "The dogs aren’t very well behaved." When his mother told them there were huge lots for sale on adjoining Oblong Lake, he and David drove over right away to see one. With 1,400 feet of shoreline and 61 acres of bush, the site provided plenty of space for both the dogs and owners to romp around. That was in 2009. "I’m not sure we were ready for it," says David, "but we took it with a five-year plan in mind, camping the first year and taking our time to build."

The main corridor bends 100 degrees from end to end and leads to three guest rooms, each with a different color door. "Roland took a Lawren Harris painting and matched the colors perfectly," says David. Photo by Michael Graydon + Nikole Herriott

They also took their time to find an architect. David’s law practice in urban development puts him in contact with some of Toronto’s best, but most of the candidates they interviewed didn’t get what they were after—until they met Roland Rom Colthoff of RAW Design.

The couple’s requests weren’t ordinary, recalls Colthoff: Instead of a certain number of bedrooms or baths, they asked for "minimal tree removal, a master bedroom like a forest ranger tower, and a place where their dogs could run wild."

On his first site visit in 2012, the architect walked the property, swam in the lake, and stood on a small hilltop where the last owner had cleared a space for vehicles to turn around. As he looked down over the valley, with its two bays and acres of poplar and ash trees, the landscape unfolded before him like a panorama.

That vista prompted an unusual, curved design for the house. Although Colthoff typically avoids rounded buildings—too whimsical, too constructivist, he says—his initial sketches kept coming up curved, so he stopped fighting what the terrain was telling him to do.Colthoff, project architect Jon Jeronimus, and general contractor Derek Nicholson used two techniques to build the house: post-and-beam for the great room and master suite and stick-frame for the guest wing and entry area. Near the front door, there’s a special tub for the owners to wash their dogs in after hikes. The basin has a low opening and is made of durable concrete, courtesy of Mag’s Concrete Works. The wood paneling is walnut.

Rounded buildings are generally more complicated to make. Colthoff estimates the curve added a month of construction. (The cottage, finished in 2015, came close to meeting the clients’ five-year plan.) Builder Derek Nicholson says part of the challenge was having to massage straight materials like lumber and plywood into curves, which required skilled carpenters from Toronto, a good three hours away.

Clad in SPF lumber, zinc, and glass, David Bronskill and Mark Dilworth’s vacation home on Oblong Lake fans out to capture wide views of the forest. "Nothing is straight in the plan," says architect Roland Rom Colthoff of RAW Design, who conceived the 2,500-square-foot escape

The cottage is built in three sections united by a curved corridor: a guest wing, a communal volume, and a master suite, elevated above grade. Its E-shape creates outdoor areas between the wings, including a screened porch that opens onto a deck through a huge accordion-style door.

For the main volume, Colthoff took a cue from Frank Lloyd Wright and shrank the entryway to seven feet in order to heighten the sense of awe as visitors flow into the kitchen-dining-living room, where 12-to-16-foot-high windows frame views of the woods. Here, the tongue-and-groove ceiling deck soars along the curvature of large glulam beams, which arrived cambered from the factory.

Erecting the house while maintaining trees was a challenge, Colthoff admits. "We definitely wanted the building to be compressed by the forest, so you felt as though you were in the woods," he says. The setting also dictated some of the mechanical choices. Mark and David considered installing an underground geothermal heat pump to power the HVAC system, but found they couldn’t dig deep and narrow because of all the Canadian Shield rock on-site, or shallow and wide because it would mean sacrificing trees. Instead, a propane tank fuels the boilers, but these are rarely turned on, thanks to passive climate control.

Although the couple didn’t grow up "cottaging," they’re evangelical about it now. With their busy law and veterinary practices, they can manage only a few days off at a time. Plus, it’s hard to go anywhere else with all the dogs.

They’ve also added children to the family. Shortly after buying the property, they became the legal guardians of Saif, an Iraqi refugee who came to Canada through the Urgent Protection Program. Now in his twenties, Saif attends university and lives in student housing with two teenage brothers who joined him in 2016, Abdullah and Ali. While their day-to-day involvement with Saif has lessened, David and Mark sometimes take all three boys up to Oblong Lake to swim, relax, and hang out with their dogs. Stanley, AJ, and Piglet, the pack who inspired the cottage, have all passed away, but they’ve been replaced by four more rescues.

Photo by Michael Graydon + Nikole Herriott "The geometry is constantly changing on you as you go along the curve." Roland Rom Colthoff, architect

Nearly a decade after the couple bought the property, there’s still work to be done. They just recently started the landscaping. "We didn’t fully appreciate the complexity until we saw the building progress on-site," says David. "Now I sometimes stop to look at a particular curve or beam and marvel at what we accomplished."

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