Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
Sisters build piece of paradise in Toney River
Growing up, Lee Cameron Surrette and her sister Lindsay Cameron Wilson spent their summers at their family cottage in Toney River, N.S., where they enjoyed the beach, the beautiful scenery and time with family. As the years went by, and the sisters had families of their own, they needed more space.
“We wanted to build a cottage so we could be at the beach the same time as our two other sisters, parents and cousins,” said Lee. “The original family cottage was bulging at the seams.”
After buying a nearby wedge of land from their parents — land that had been in the Cameron family since the early 1970s — they began construction on their own place in the summer of 2014, moving in the following year.
Lee, a professional house designer, designed the cottage, taking both the landscape and the families’ needs into careful consideration.
The cottage is just under 1,200 square feet and has two main bays. The beach side has an open, shared space that maximizes the view of the water, the point and sunsets.
“We wanted an area for everyone to gather to play cards and maybe host a talent show or two for the community here at Upalong Beach,” says Lindsay, noting get-togethers had been put on hold in recent years due to COVID-19, but resumed this past summer.
Lindsay and Lee share the cottage with their husbands and children, who are ages 12 through 18 (nine people total), but it’s designed to house more.
There’s a loft over the kitchen with a spare bedroom and desk area that’s perfect for remote working. The back bay of the cottage is where you’ll find the rest of the bedrooms — one end for each family. The bedrooms are small with built-in bunks. Each family has two bedrooms plus a loft, and their own bathroom, which has proven to be a huge plus.
“We all share a space really well, probably because the husbands insisted on two toilets,” says Lindsay.
When it comes to style, the sisters agreed on the look.
“Our friend Hillary coined the cottage décor as ‘Sandy Scandi,’” says Lindsay. “It wasn’t an intentional aesthetic decision, but we love the simplicity, clean lines and coziness of Scandinavian design.”
“We have a foot basin by the door, but sandy feet are still allowed,” adds Lee.
Almost every building element in the cottage is either local (from the Proudfoots Home Hardware in Pictou), salvaged from friends doing renos, or from buildings being demolished.
“The loft ladders, for example, were built in Hantsport by a man who builds apple-picking ladders,” says Lee.
Other elements were taken from their own homes or built by them. For example, they all worked on building the beds and benches, with Lee’s husband Jamie as lead builder.
Off the Grid
One of the most unique features of the cottage is that it is completely off-grid.
Both sisters agree it was an easy decision to build this way. The closest power line is on the other side of a gully. They wanted to bury the line but the gully was deemed an active waterway so that wasn’t an option.
“Jamie’s business manufactures storage batteries and he’s familiar with installing solar panels,” says Lee of her husband’s company. “It was an obvious solution given the constraints of tying to the grid.”
The cottage has a battery bank, solar panels and a power inverter.
“Before this, I knew nothing about how much power things draw,” says Lindsay. “For example, a hairdryer draws a lot. Luckily, we are very low maintenance in the summer. There’s no hair-drying. It’s never an issue.”
For cooking, they have a propane stove and stovetop. The barbecue is also hardwired into the propane tank. And solar power heats the water.
She says the kids haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary living off-grid.
“They can plug in their iPhones, and all is fine,” laughs Lindsay. “If they couldn’t do that, they might notice.”
Location & Materials
When building the cottage, the families gave a lot of thought to the cottage’s placement on the property and what materials they used.
“The beachside deck is where we spend the most time,” says Lee. “The cottage is angled to capture water views as well as the rising and setting sun. The angle also provides privacy for us as well as our neighbours.”
The cottage is separated from their family cottage and the rest of the cottage community by a small gully that borders the western edge of the property. On the south side is a farmer’s field, and to the north is a rocky bank that leads to the beach.
For materials, they went natural and subdued. The interior walls are clad in whitewashed 8” spruce flooring from Hefler Forest Products and the floors are a buffed concrete. They also have numerous sheepskins from Lismore Sheep Farm in River John, N.S.
“They add a little bit of warmth and comfort,” says Lee.
And even though the bedrooms are small, they all have at least two windows for maximum cross breeze and added light.
The main areas of living space are perfect for entertaining and enjoying the sunset view. There is a large window across from an L-shaped sofa that frames the setting sun. They call it “nature’s movie screen.”
But when the weather is good, they spend much of their time outdoors. They do yoga and play lawn games such as washer toss and spike ball, and their deck has become a popular gathering spot.
“Our big table is always full,” says Lindsay. “It’s the meeting point for all the cousins and family… We have a lobster pot we use for deep frying fish and steaming crab legs. We do a lot of fish and chips outside on that big table.”
And although the families don’t use the cottage during the winter months, they keep it open well into the fall, typically closing up around Thanksgiving.
“We’ll open it up again in May,” says Lindsay. “We always love getting here in the spring, doing a bit of planting and getting everything ready for a new season.”