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Granddad’s cottage makes way for a year-round family home

In 2008, my wife and I purchased an old, somewhat dilapidated cottage that had long belonged to my grandfather, prominent Canadian engineer Ira P. Macnab.

Ira had spent his final years in a comfortable, but modest, existence on this property, which was part of a unique group of cottages and sheds on Wooden’s Cove in Seabright, NS. Over four generations, the Macnab cottages have grown into a sort of family gathering place; during the summer months, my brother and sisters and their children visit from their homes across the country.

I decided to follow my grandfather’s path and build my year-round residence where that cottage stood on the shore of St. Margaret’s Bay—an area which has changed very little since the time of my grandfather.

Trained as an architect, I was initially keen to renovate my new home. I came up with a conceptual design, but on the advice of my builder, I realized that the old house would have to be entirely demolished. I spend a lot of time travelling for work, and realized that I would not have the time to develop a new final design and work up the detailed drawings necessary to complete the project.

Instead, I turned to a friend—local architect, Michael Napier—to revise and refine my initial concept for a new home. The goal was to echo the original house and its simple forms—residential forms that are common on the Peggy’s Cove road—while creating a cozy and energy efficient modern dwelling.

The new house, which has an entirely new footprint, is oriented in a slightly more southerly direction than the old building had been. Extra windows were added to take advantage of passive solar gain and views. The living room was turned to the west to facilitate the view out of the cove and in to the Bay—an element that gives the exterior of the house an intriguing twist.

My family had always lamented that the original house didn’t have a deck overlooking the water, so a large deck was added to the new design. The prevailing blustery southwesterly sea breeze can often punish this deck, however, so a second deck was added to the west elevation; this deck is protected from the wind and gets terrific late afternoon sun.

Another feature I wanted was a few exterior doors that would lead directly into the living spaces—just as many simple cottages have. A formal entry did not fit the design criteria.

On the interior, the main floor has a modern, open expanse. The island countertop, along with the fireplace surround, is a custom Italian granite designed to reflect the grey granite rocks of Peggy’s Cove.

Heated concrete floors act as one large thermal mass to keep the place consistently comfortable throughout the year. Additional energy efficiencies were also brought about by augmenting the R-20 cavity wall insulation with exterior rigid insulation sheathing.

An airtight fireplace also heats the main floor very quickly in the winter. Electric baseboard heaters were installed upstairs, but are rarely used.

One particularly successful design element that Napier contributed is the roof overhang on the southern side. In the summer, this overhang keeps the house cool, while in the winter, when the sun is lower, direct sunlight penetrates the living spaces. On the northern entrance side, the overhang serves as protection from the rain, in addition to adding a nice aesthetic touch.

Many new houses today have underutilized roof spaces. I’ve always loved older homes that had rather small, awkward bedrooms tucked under the eaves with dramatic interior ceiling slopes—this home has two such spaces, adding interest.

One area where my wife and I splurged was on was the exterior cladding and windows. The coastal environment can be very challenging for many modern exterior building materials. We chose white cedar shingles with a pre-weathering stain—for both their aesthetic appeal and their resilience. For windows, we chose a type that offers a traditional wooden look on the interior, while the exterior, which is constructed of a pultruded fiberglass, resists rot. These windows have performed flawlessly.

In the end, Napier balanced his “redesign” of my design with the cottage feel I was accustomed to. I had dreamed of a simple house like that of my grandparents, where family could gather in the summer, and where we could relax by the fire with our dog and cat and a glass of wine during the long winter months.

I think Ira P. would be pleased.

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