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Now or Never

A Canadian Couple retires in style on the shores of Lake Erie.
by Amy Laughinghouse
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When Bryan and Pat Robertson of Ontario, Canada, took a long, scenic drive around Lake Erie one day in the spring of 1997, they had no idea that road eventually would lead them to a cozy timber frame home to spend the golden years of their retirement. Bryan, an Anglican priest, and his wife, Pat, a homemaker, actually were looking for a place where they could park a house trailer they had been storing.

“Lake Erie was only 15 miles from where we lived at the time, and we thought we would just go and stay at the lake on weekends,” Pat says. “Our parents had cottages there when we were young, and it just always seemed to be the place we navigated to, where all our friends were.”

“We were looking at campgrounds for permanent sites for our trailer and didn’t find anything we liked,” Bryan says. On the way home, they spotted a “For Sale” sign erected on a rolling, 18-acre waterfront plot, heavily forested with white pines and red oaks. “We trudged through the trees and high grass and found this beautiful view of the lake,” he says.

“We thought, ‘Gee, it would be nice to live here. Forget about the trailer,’ ” Pat says. “So we decided to sell our house and build a new one.”

The couple knew they wanted a more comfortable, rustic look for their lakeside residence, which Bryan envisioned as “a sort of home and a cottage combined.” He and Pat investigated a variety of options, poring over copies of Log Home Living and post-and-beam publications and even visiting a cedar home manufacturer in Seattle. Eventually, however, the wide-open concept of the timber frame home won out.

Pat and Bryan selected Thistlewood Timber Frame Homes in Ontario to produce their timber frame home. “Someone we knew had recommended them,” Bryan says. “Our friend told me that Thistlewood’s president, Scott Murray, was one of the top people in the business.”

After visiting Thistlewood’s headquarters, the Robertsons were convinced they had found the right company. “They took us through the workshop. We really thought their workmanship was great—the joinery and the way they finished everything,” says Bryan, who especially liked the chamfering that characterizes most of Thistlewood’s timbers.

Thistlewood offers reclaimed wood from old factories and warehouses. The wood is sawn to size at the company’s headquarters. Or, customers can opt for new eastern white pine, which is sawn by outside mills. All of the mortise-and-tenon joints are secured by oak pegs and are fashioned at Thistlewood’s workshop. “We’re using power tools for the basic cuts and preliminary aspects of the joinery, but we finish all the joints by hand with chisel and mallet,” Scott says.

Given Scott’s background, it’s hardly surprising that he has embraced classic woodworking methods. “I was in construction for a brief time, but I was always interested in timber framing,” says Scott, who at one time worked on a crew that dismantled old post-and-beam barns and historic buildings and reconstructed them at a museum.

“It was a really great way to see how all the mortise-and-tenon joints were cut. In some cases, we had to make new parts to replace a piece that was damaged or rotted,” he says. “It was a sort of informal apprenticeship.” Scott founded Thistlewood in 1982 with just one other employee. Today, his company has grown to 35 employees, with distributors throughout North America.

When the Robertsons visited Thistlewood, they had already roughed out a two-bedroom, two-bath floorplan that featured a deck and screened-in porch overlooking Lake Erie. To cut costs, the couple used eastern white pine timbers only in the great room, kitchen, master bedroom and loft. The rest of the 2,670-square-foot home would be built using stick-frame construction.

Thistlewood’s design department created blueprints for the timber frame section, which builder Mike Ross of William J. Ross Construction in Simcoe, Ontario, then integrated into blueprints. Mike, whose father founded the company nearly 40 years ago, had no experience building such a hybrid home, but Bryan knew he wanted to hire him. “The Rosses have a long-standing reputation as quality builders,” Bryan says.

The Robertsons installed a 1,600-foot gravel drive leading from the main road to the site before Mike and his brother Bob could break ground in May 1998. Mike’s first challenge was moving several tons of earth to create the daylight basement the Robertsons requested, thinking they might eventually finish an additional guest room for their adult children. Then he had to install the foundation and subfloor, which is supported by engineered floor joists. “These are constructed of a wood webbing that allows us to go with large spans across the floor with fewer beams in the basement,” Mike says. “They have a lot of strength, and there’s no squeaking of floors.”

After the subfloor was installed, Thistlewood’s crew arrived with a flatbed truck loaded with timbers. Because of the winding drive with its hairpin turns, timbers were off-loaded at the main road and hauled to the site with a crane. The next day, with onsite foreman Allan O’Neil at the helm, the crew erected the timber frame within hours, despite pouring rain.

However, installation of the structural stress skin panel walls took longer than expected, Bryan says. Before the roof could be installed, inclement weather destroyed a portion of the subfloor, which Mike had to replace.

Laying water pipes to the home also was a challenge because of the distance to the main road and all the hills. The septic tank also could not drain properly in the heavy clay near the lake, so 40 loads of sand were hauled in to create a leach field. Gas service stops short of the home site, so heat is provided courtesy of a 900-liter oil-fired furnace with a heat recovery ventilator that helps circulate fresh air and control humidity in the tightly sealed home.<

By February 1999, the home was complete. The master bedroom features kingpost bents and French doors leading out onto the rear deck. The great room incorporates two hammerbeam bents with curved knee braces and pendant posts capped by elegantly carved knobs. A cultured stone fireplace, installed by Randy Puype Masonry, creates a focal point for the room, which, like the master bedroom, boasts tongue-and-groove pine paneling on the walls and ceiling. The Robertson family crest, carved in the mantel by Thistlewood’s Martin Dannys, adds a personal touch, as does the Thistlewood logo and the date 1998 (indicating the year the frame was erected) engraved on a beam opposite the fireplace.

“It has all the best attributes of a home and a cottage,” Bryan says, “without needing two places.”

Published in Log Home Living
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