House Beautiful: A not-so-big woodsy retreat in Shawnigan

Tucked into the woods of Shawnigan Lake, at the end of a gravel road, stands a house that suits its natural surroundings as well as the couple who call it home.

Outdoor enthusiasts Jackson Leidenfrost and partner Alyssa Boynton exchanged city life for the country and built their own house surrounded by nature.

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Here, you can hear the sounds of a stream below the property, and wind whistling through cedar and fir trees, and see an abundance of wildlife, from deer to bears, depending on the time and season.

“I love the privacy and being in the woods connected to nature,” says Boynton.

“We built the whole place with privacy in mind,” adds Leidenfrost.

The main floor of the house has immediate access to the outdoors and its many windows and exterior doors, with full-panel glass panes, frame the surrounding trees.

There’s no need for curtains or much wall art, since the views on all sides are forest. Inside the wood and metal-frame structure, the walls are clad in white shiplap instead of drywall, creating a charming, neutral background.

A modern freestanding wood stove in the corner of the living room adds to the home’s sense of cosiness — it’s easy to imagine lighting a fire and curling up with a book on the comfy couch.

A small bookshelf under the television holds some of the couple’s favourites, including ones that hint at their design ethos, including Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live by Susan Susanka, who wrote The Not So Big House: a Blueprint for the Way We Really Live.

The latter, published in 1998, was a bestseller that helped lead a movement away from “McMansions.” The author argued that the key to a “not so big” house is making the best possible use of space.

“The magic is that although the house is smaller in square footage, it actually feels much bigger,” writes Susanka. “It’s not about living in a small house and getting used to feeling cramped. A not so big house feels more spacious than many of its oversized neighbors because it is space with substance, all of it in use every day.”

That’s certainly true of the 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom house Leidenfrost built, where every part is utilized daily by the couple.

Like Susanka, Leidenfrost believes a smaller home can be both comfortable and inspiring and seem bigger than it actually is.

Leidenfrost, who has a Red Seal certificate in carpentry and has been working in residential construction since 2008, has firsthand experience of what works well for individual homeowners.

The 30-year-old spent the last six years as a project manager overseeing custom-home construction, commercial renovations and multi-family developments for a large Victoria construction company. “I’ve been building high-end custom homes most of my career. One of the biggest houses I worked on was 8,200 square feet with 11 bathrooms for three people living there. That led me to question how much space do you really need?”

But while Leidenfrost believes most families can live with less space, he’s not a fan of “tiny houses” — pint-size abodes that typically range from 100 to 400 square feet. “I think they are silly. They are OK for an Airbnb, but too small to be someone’s home. It’s not useful space.”

His own 1,200-square-foot home is a more “reasonable” alternative, he says, and could fit a family of three or four quite comfortably.

Leidenfrost’s well-designed small home certainly feels spacious and meets the couple’s needs. For instance, the ceiling was left open with exposed joists, which, besides being a money-saving move, makes the home’s nine-foot ceilings appear even higher.

Also adding to the sense of spaciousness is the open-concept main-floor space that includes a living room, kitchen and dining area, with an adjacent guest bedroom that doubles as office space. There’s even a small powder room with a shower for guests.

Storage space wasn’t sacrificed in the home’s minimalist, modern design — in fact, it was carefully considered throughout the house.

For instance, Leidenfrost built a kitchen banquette with extra storage in the benches, as well as at the end of the table base — perfect for a collection of cookbooks.

The white oak kitchen cabinets were one of the few things Leidenfrost didn’t build himself. The custom kitchen was created by Coast Cabinets, with open shelving instead of upper cabinets to give the room a sense of spaciousness and keep material costs down.

Another choice that kept costs down was laying a concrete floor, instead of a wood floor, since the house was already being built on a slab. After pouring the concrete, Leidenfrost polished it to suit the home’s modern look.

To help others achieve the goal of an affordable custom house, Leidenfrost started his own company, called Hygge Design, that employs “economical” building practices.

He says his goal is to bring the experience of building a custom home to as many people as possible. “Building a new house is going to be expensive no matter how you look at it, but I believe it can be attainable for many more people if they knew what all the options are and if the process is made less intimidating,” he says. “My design intent is essentially to build beautiful homes designed efficiently and for real people.”

He estimates the cost of building his house, including purchasing the land, would be around $570,000, “which is still really affordable.”

The biggest challenge, he says, is finding an affordable piece of land on which to build. The couple was able to find a forested lot, which they bought for $202,000 in August 2018. Since it was bare land, they needed to bring in a septic system and a well and get their house connected to hydro, which cost about $60,000.

Some of the big savings they were able to achieve included the concrete floor and using painted glass in the two showers instead of tile.

They also found savings in small details, such as painting the shiplap wall in the master bedroom to frame out a headboard instead of buying one.

The house was completed in September 2019 and the couple was able to make the move from Victoria to Shawnigan Lake. Their next plan is to start a vegetable garden this summer and better utilize their outdoor space.

Fortunately, Susanka has a few thoughts on that topic, as well — Outside the Not So Big House: Creating the Landscape of Home.

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