EASIER COTTAGE LIVING: Low-maintenance Design & Building Strategies

cottage_photoUPDATED 29Jun2019: Many people dream about owning a country cottage or summer home, but the reality is often a disappointment in one, unexpected way. When it’s all said and done, “too much work” is how many cottagers feel about their ownership experience. They probably won’t come right out and say it, but it’s often true. This is especially unfortunate since attractive, low-maintenance building strategies have never been more plentiful. The trick is creating a low-maintenance cottage that doesn’t look like something transplanted from the suburbs. One of the worst things that can happen to a beautiful rural place is when it degenerates into suburban architecture.

As it turns out, the biggest maintenance challenges almost always involve exterior wood. Cottage owners want something that looks “natural”, but they’re soon surprised by how much ongoing attention wood demands when used outdoors. That’s why you need to use it sparingly as part of any low-maintenance cottage exterior. Here are six low maintenance design strategies to keep in mind as you build or renovate a country cottage or rural getaway retreat.

Cottage Design Idea#1: Use Synthetic Deck Materials

composite_trex_deck_cornerComposites are outdoor materials made of recycled wood and plastic, and they’re made into “lumber” that never needs finishing. Technically speaking this isn’t exactly natural, but the best composites look great, they fit right into a cottage setting, and they save you a lot of finishing hassles. Composites are great for decks, docks, verandah floors and outdoor furniture. The stuff you see to the left is TREX. It’s one of many brands of composites. I first used it 15 years ago and it’s great. It even performs well on our swimming raft.

Composite wood substitutes certainly have their place in reducing your cottage maintenance load, but do you have your heart set on some kind of real wood siding for your new cottage or addition? Consider cedar shingles as an exterior wall siding option. It is by-far the longest lasting, most weather-resist wood siding option available, as I’ll show you.

Cottage Design Idea#2: Consider Cedar Sidewall Shingles

Cottage Siding

These white cedar shingles have been working well for 50 years. They’ve been stained brown every 10 or 15 years, but this affects appearance only, not working life.

Nothing compares with the durability and long-term good looks of this kind of wood. I’ve even seen 80-year old cedar wall shingles still holding back the weather on walls and looking terrific without ever being maintained since new. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that cedar shingles are no different than any other wood siding as far as maintenance goes. That’s simply not true. Since the direction of wood grain on shingles is vertical, they shed water and last longer than wood siding with its horizontal grain direction.  And cedar sidewall shingles only ever need to be finished if you want that for looks. They last fine unfinished for decades. The shingles you see here to the right were originally installed in the 1940s.

Cottage Design Idea#3: Choose a Submersible Water Pump

submersible_pumpFlick the switch and your cottage water system and it works again in the spring. What could be better than that? This is the ultimate in ease and it’s what a submersible water pump can do for you. Much better than the painful priming chores most cottage owners need to deal with because of their jet pump or piston pump installations. Submersible pumps sit out in the lake, underwater, and push water from there. No priming is necessary. Water pressure is better with a submersible too, and you never hear them run. They’re silent because they’re underwater. The submersible pump you see here is a brand new unit ready for an installation I did a few years ago and my place. It’s a 1/2 horsepower size, which is all any cottage needs. Notice the small, black pipe in the foreground. That’s actually protecting the wires coming from the pump. The water comes through the lighter coloured pipe next to that. Normally submersible pumps are made for use in wells, but several companies make metal holders for supporting submersibles out in the lake.

Cottage Design Idea#4: Avoid Wooden Soffit and Fascia

fascia_nailSoffit is the edge of a roof structure, and fascia is the area underneath the eaves of the house. Many cottage owners and builders make the mistake of using wood in these locations. Do not do this. Soffit and fascia areas receive the worst weathering action of any outdoor location, so finishes deteriorate quickly up there. And it’s also difficult and dangerous to finish and refinish wooden soffit and fascia. Even on “natural looking” structures like cottages, wood in these locations is visually unnecessary and a pain to maintain. Instead, use colour-matched aluminum soffit and fascia. It looks good in all situations, is relatively easy to install, and doesn’t create ongoing maintenance slavery. The factor finish lasts for decades. Brown is best because you don’t see the dirt or spider webs like you will on white.

Cottage Design Idea#5: Use an Underground Electrical Service

This strategy is about both reliability and beauty. Although underground electrical services do cost more than wires supported on poles, underground service lines are less likely to get damaged by trees and ice. This is one reason underground is better. Another reason is that cottage country deserves better than to be scarred by a bunch of overhead wires running through the forest. It’s an unnecessary eye-sore. Got a rocky site? I’ve installed underground services in places like these. Click to watch my installation of service cables on rural site where my son was building with shallow soil (or no soil at all) sitting over bedrock.

Posted on November 17th, 2010