Perching, Nesting, and More

In Muskoka, hundreds of permits for construction are issued every year. Again this year, so many families across Muskoka will be struggling with the design decisions they need to make for improvement of their cottages through renovation or construction.

Image: Although the ceiling height is constant throughout this cottage, the great room has a white reflective ceiling and expansive windows to create “prospect”, while “refuge”is created in the bedroom with the use of a dark stained ceiling and clerestory windows to prevent anyone seeing into this private space.

As a society, we are increasingly aware of the importance of design in our lives. Great design is no longer just for the wealthy; it is showing up in the most humble of household goods like waste paper baskets by Umbra and cyclonic vacuums by James Dyson.

Architect Grant Hildebrand from the University of Washington at Seattle conducted a search for the qualities of an inherently likable building, so that these features could be built into every home. With the help of a number of related professional peers, such as a psychologist, geographer, and biologist, among others, he came up with five characteristics that they believe enhance the experience of ‘home’. These characteristics are Prospect, Refuge, Enticement, Peril, and Complex Order.

The first time I heard this list I was quite baffled at the words, and could not imagine how they would relate to improving the livability of my Muksoka cottage. However, after hearing the explanation of each concept, I see how these words express what I innately knew and recognized when I entered a well designed building. I now had a language that enabled me to express appreciation for what I see, and also helps me to recognize and articulate what is missing in some designs.

The first two concepts of the five are paired; prospect and refuge. ‘Prospect’ is a noun meaning a scene spread out in front of you, or an extended view. Refuge is just the opposite. Refuge is a small, safe, and sheltered area. Frank Lloyd Wright employed these concepts in his structures, but he referred to them as nesting and perching.

Both of these aspects should be present in your home or cottage to a varying ratio. Interestingly enough, research shows that the ratio of prospect to refuge that you prefer can be determined by your temperment, the geographic location of your home, or your gender. Many women tend to favour increased amounts of space devoted to refuge, while most men prefer an increased ratio of prospect to refuge in their homes. During a design phase, couples may find that this is an area of disagreement between them. Anticipating that this difference of opinion can occur between the sexes could make the compromise easier to arrive at.

People come to Muskoka looking for both prospect and the refuge. We come here for the long views of the water, for the soaring star-filled sky at night, for the closeness to nature, and for the chance to get away to a safe haven. Because of the number of tall pines, spruce, maples, oaks, and birch on most lakeside property, there is less need for refuge here in Muskoka. Being nestled in among these trees, down long cottage roads, has already provided a feeling of refuge for you. In such a location you would likely feel comfortable having as many windows and open spaces as possible, giving you long wide, views. The more the trees shield and shelter you, the more you are willing to be in exposed positions from the interior of your cottage.

On the other hand, should your cottage be one which is perched on a high promontory overlooking the lake, you may feel a need to have increased cozy, intimate spots inside your building. When your cottage is in a more exposed location, it is a natural tendency that you are going to want to create spots in which you can have your back protected, and feel sure that you are unavailable to prying eyes.

‘Great rooms’, which are so common in new construction in Muskoka, are a good example of a space which has prospect. This space is frequently designed with either a ten foot ceiling, or a peaked ceiling soaring twelve or more feet in the air. The sheer volume of this room, supplemented by the extended view out huge windows, creates a space which is best shared by a number of people. It is not a space in which a single person could feel cozy and secure. For this reason it would be ideal to design a cozy nook off to the side of the great room, or to add a smaller room, such as a study, in which a single person could curl up to read or snooze in a spot that feels intimate and protected. It would also be effective to be able to shut this smaller space off from the great room so that the noise and activity of the larger, public space does not impose itself on the more intimate space.

Having the contrast of prospect and refuge in your home increases the intensity of each. The prospect of a great room is magnified by the coziness of a small nook. On the other hand, if you have too much of either prospect or refuge, the building does not meet your needs or feel right in all situations. A ceiling that is the same height throughout a cottage will not serve as well as one with a varied height between the public and the private spaces. The contrast between big and small, high and low, exposed and private makes a home or cottage more appealing. This contrast is sometimes called “tension”and it creates a structure that feels more dynamic and exciting.

When we built our island cottage, we made the mistake of insisting on as high a ceiling as possible in the great room. This was a wonderful room for a party, however when we were alone in it, there was a bit of an echo, and we felt very insignificant. If I looked across at John walking through the kitchen, it actually looked as if he was crouching down, because he seemed so small in that huge volume of space. It would have been far more effective had we lowered the ceiling in the kitchen area to provide some degree of coziness, and to reduce the overall volume of the space. The ratio of prospect was too high in that cottage, causing a lack of intimate space required when we were alone or after a tough work week, when we needed to experience our cottage as a haven.

In Muskoka it is common for new construction to plan for ample prospect, which is instantly dramatic and impressive. It is the refuge, common to smaller, older cottages that is sometimes missing, leaving a yearning at times for a cozy corner. We are hard wired to favour places where our backs are protected. This is why booths, alcoves, and nooks, are preferred for intimate dinners, to a table in the centre of the room.

Whether your cottage is new or many years old, you can analyse and manipulate it to add prospect and refuge, making it function successfully for your daily activities, while nurturing your spirit. Future articles will suggest ways to achieve this in both new construction or an existing cottage. You can also contact me at or 645-2110 for additional information.

Thelma Jarvis Sales Representative

Port Carling: (705) 765-6855
Bracebridge: (705) 645 5257
Cell: (705) 644-3554
Fax: (705) 645-1238

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