The Architects' Adventure

A father and son tear down their family’s four-generation cottage to create a retreat for the future.

A Lakeside cottage, along with the memories contained within it, is priceless. New windows, unfortunately, are not — a lesson learned by Bill Ruth and his wife, Susan.

The Ruth family began vacationing near Ontario’s Rondeau Provincial Park in the late 1800s. As the family grew, so did the wood-frame cottage that was pieced together from two fishing shanties. One room after another was added, each with lots of windows that took advantage of the Lake Erie view. But when it came time to replace those windows — and the roof — to the tune of nearly $60,000, the family paused.

“I asked my son McMichael what he’d do with the cottage after we were gone,” says Susan, “and he told me he’d tear it down and build a new one.”

The answer shocked her. “It was just not fair that he would take all our money and build new. So, I said to him, ‘If you’re just going to tear it down, let’s at least do it now so I can live in it.’ ”

The design and construction of a contemporary summer home turned out to be the ideal project for the entire family, but especially for Bill and McMichael, who both are architects. Together, father and son wove the family’s wants and needs into a space-conscious modern masterpiece.

Bill, who has LEED accreditation, wanted to experiment with design, while reducing energy consumption and minimizing the environmental impact of new construction. Susan, the CEO and CFO of the family, yearned for an open-concept kitchen to serve as her “control center,” where she could cook the family meals, but not get left out of the action. Meanwhile, McMichael and his sister Alexandra — now both in their early 30s — needed to have room to grow as their families expanded. 

The new energy-efficient home — built over the footprint of the old cottage, but with an open layout — now maximizes the natural cross ventilation. The roofs are covered with plants or have a white surface to maximize sun reflection. But most importantly, the design is perfectly suited for everyone.

“It’s any architect’s dream to build something that is an expression of self, and it was great fun for me to work with my son,” says Bill. “McMichael and I worked well together even though it’s unusual for any two architects to be compatible as far as design is concerned. The home wouldn’t suit everyone, but it’s adaptable. The whole house is nice and open, and it’s easy to put walls up or close things off in the bedrooms.”

To maintain the feeling of openness throughout the house, all the furnishings were either designed specifically or selected for the cottage. Murphy beds tuck into wall cabinets in the upstairs rooms to provide space for other activities, such as painting, which is something Bill and his daughter enjoy together.

Translucence was essential for allowing the beauty of the wooded lakefront property to take center stage. “Modern design is not entangled with unnecessary and meaningless decoration,” says Bill. “It lets the spaces do the talking.”

In the living room, the family chose classic mid-century modern furniture, including two Wassily chairs, originally designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925, and two open-weave metal Diamond chairs by Harry Bertoia, who once said, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.” 

Following in the footsteps of these great modern furniture makers, Bill personally designed a glass-top table with a steel base that not only perfectly fills the dining space, but also reflects the scenery visible through windows on three sides of the room. Clear, Lucite chairs complete the look. “The furniture has a place in the space where it is located but it never fills or dominates the space,” says Bill. 

Light also filters between floors in a rather unusual way. The wood planks in the upstairs hallways were laid with a small gap between each one. The flooring is solid only above and below the kitchen. “Had they left it open at the kitchen, we’d have a big mess,” Susan points out.

The father-son architects made material and design choices that would soften the transition between indoors and out. The entire structure appears to float atop a wooden deck that runs from the front entryway to the back porch. Colors throughout the house are muted and natural. 

The water-loving, scuba-diving family also incorporated the element of H20 in the home, most notably with the installation of a 14-foot-long, indoor saltwater lap pool, located just off the kitchen. “We installed it so that I would swim to stay fit,” says Susan. “We use it mostly as a large hot tub. We’ll sit with a glass of wine after dinner in the hot salt water listening to music and looking at the stars through the skylight. We are spoiled!”

These days, children’s books, toys and puzzles are scattered around the living room, evidence that the fifth generation of the Ruth family is enjoying the new cottage, too. McMichael’s daughter will learn to swim on the same Lake Erie beach, play under the trees planted by her great-grandfather and sleep under the roof that her dad helped her grandfather build.

“My only regret about tearing down the old cottage was knowing my father and grandfather put a lot of work into it to make it always a better place,” says Bill. “I know, as well, that Father would be very proud of the new Ruth cottage that his son and grandson designed. I loved the opportunity to build this home; it was a dream come true.”