Waterfront Homes & Cottages – an interview with Jim Bell

Jim Bell has been designing homes for over 30 years. When you look at his portfolio of projects, it becomes obvious quite quickly that waterfront projects are one of Jim’s strengths as a designer. Many of his favourite projects over those years have been waterfront homes and cottages. We interviewed Jim to find out more about his perspective on architectural design for waterfront properties.

You’ve been designing homes for 30 years. What makes waterfront projects your favorite projects to design?

I enjoy my own waterfront property and I love waterfront properties in general. I find it easier to envision how we can take advantage of the property, capture some lovely views and enhance the enjoyment that comes along with living next to a body of water. I think of the joy of being able to go for a swim, a boat ride, canoe, kayak, or just go sit by the water, relax and enjoy. Listen to the waves splashing the rocky shore. Walk along a sandy beach. Just all the things that make it so relaxing. Designing a custom home or cottage on a water front property is work that I really enjoy.

Lake view from patio

What makes designing for waterfront homes different from designing for a typical estate lot property or urban home?

In a lot of cases, for both estate lots and urban home lots, the footprint of the building is driven by the developer who in most cases has little concern for what aspects or relationships the building may have to its surroundings. An urban lot has other houses surrounding it. so you are limited to two exposures—front and rear. There aren’t many options for the design of the footprint because there are specific setbacks and the designer usually must design to those setbacks to meet the clients program requirements. The creativity is left to what you can do inside, it’s not as often about views, light exposure and a relationship to the land. Perhaps you can capture some sunlight, but you’re typically limited to very little on the sides and hopefully more in the front and back, which may not be the most advantageous orientation for sunlight.

For an estate property it’s a little more flexible. Often you can design the home so that it has a nicer feeling as you approach from the street and takes advantage of a treed rear yard or the property will provide a vista into meadows, a forest or fields.

With most waterfront properties we have more room for creativity and the ability provide optimal orientation for sunlight and views.

Why should a waterfront property owner consider a custom architectural design instead of an online plan or prefab cottage?

An off-the-shelf plan rarely takes advantage of all of the great possibilities of a unique property. There are so many other things you can do. Catalogue plans are not going to be designed for the specific vistas and features of the lot. The endearing qualities – the advantages that attracted the owner to that property, such as views or location, can’t be fully captured in a catalogue plan. You may be able to capture some of it, but you’re going to miss a lot. Again, they are typically designed for a foot printed area where you’re limited on what you can do. When we design a custom waterfront home, we will take into consideration all of the wonderful features of the property – the views, the light exposure, the tree coverage and the proximity to the waterfront.

There are usually municipal and code related issues that haven’t been taken into account with an online plan. A lot of times it’s mostly code issues and the plan will likely have to be modified to conform to the building codes and local municipal zoning-related requirements.

Plus, there are usually key features missing. For example, often there is no closet at the front door because the plans are designed for more temperate climates than ours. Windows might not be in the right orientation to take advantage of the exposure. For example, maybe if it’s a pure south exposure you will want to play with the length and depth of the overhang to mitigate the volume of sun into a space in July without compromising the view. So, rather than pull the blinds down because it’s too hot, you design a bigger overhang to minimize the strong July sun, like we did for a recent design with a 3’ 6” overhang on the front. The sun shines on the windowsill in July, not directly into the windows. The owners have a beautiful view of the water because they don’t have to use blinds to block the hot sunlight.

There are so many details that may not be quite right for you. You could live with them, but why do that? We can incorporate all of the advantageous qualities or aspects of a plan you like and come up with a new plan, one that is a true fit for the property and your needs. By the time you consider the cost of all of those changes and the fact that you still won’t have a custom home designed specifically for your property and your wants and needs, it makes sense to consider custom architectural design. In the end it’s a relatively small increase in the overall project cost to make sure you’re building something that will really work for your family and fits in seamlessly with the property.

What do you consider when designing a renovation or addition versus designing a new custom cottage?

It depends on the cottage. How old is the cottage? What’s the layout like? Is there an endearing feature that is meaningful? Maybe there are family history and generational memories and it’s unthinkable to destroy it? OK, we work around that. If you just need an addition off the side, then it makes sense to salvage it. If it’s a total gut, maybe it’s only the foundation you save because you have better exposure to the waterfront and you can avoid being driven by a setback which moves the home back, losing all of the advantage of being close to the water. It really depends on the cottage, the location, the client, the existing structure and either a memorable aspect of a family cottage or the property itself. But if it’s just an old place and has no endearing qualities then perhaps you remove it and start over.

What’s the process for designing a custom waterfront home or major renovation?

For most clients, we design a custom waterfront home in four steps—five steps if you include contract administration.

The first step is zoning and programming. Zoning is pretty straightforward. We check the zoning and counsel you on what can and can’t be done and the opportunities that may be available with a minor variance or an amendment for the zoning, if necessary. Zoning amendments are a time-consuming effort, so we try and work around not doing that if at all possible, and in most cases it’s not necessary. In our Program Brief we state what the project is all about, hopefully in your words. You give us a target budget and square footage and we talk about the general scope of the project, details about architectural style and finishes on the outside and inside. Then we break it down room by room. After our discussion, we tally up the square footage for the rooms to confirm the square footage. If it’s not on target, we make adjustments and you sign off on the square footage. We estimate the budget based on typical per square foot costs and the square foot tally. We check it against what you told us at the beginning. If they align, we’re in good shape. If not, we regroup and adjust.

Schematic design is next. This phase begins with a lot survey and a bubble diagram identifying the spaces we talked about in programming. We set up the bubbles and present you with the relationship of the spaces—the living room, great room, and kitchen as a group of bubbles, bedrooms in another group. And we show how they are interconnected, whether it’s by floor or by circulation space. And we present two or three options for that. Hopefully you gravitate to one and it becomes a couple of hard line floor plans. We check the square footage again and review the budget with you to confirm we’re on track.

Then it’s on to Design Development. This is where one of the design team members takes my freehand sketch and puts it into a 3D modeling program. The first iteration is a floor plan with furniture, appliances and other major elements. We check that the space is the way you envision and then we work in the background on structure, heating and mechanical trying to figure out how we’re going to resolve those things. When we are modeling the exterior, we present two versions. One may have a slight increase in the budget. We let you know that and explain why. Hopefully you gravitate to one and make a decision. We confirm the budget and move on to working drawings.

The final step is the Construction/Permit Drawings. These are drawings that are detailed, dimensioned and are used for the permit application and also acquiring a project manager or builder. These documents will guide the construction if you are doing the contracting yourself and hiring sub trades to help you build. That is the end of the service for most residential clients.

If you choose to retain us for Contract Administration, we are your eyes and ears on site. We work with your contractor and report to you. We can even provide value added by doing payment certification based on the performance of the trades and the general contractor and/or project manager. Not many clients choose to use our firm for Contract Administration because if you trust your project manager or contractor, there’s no need to have us looking over their shoulder.

For more information, download our process guide and other resources.

How long does the design process take?

Most clients complete the four design phases in about six months. Some clients end up doing it in close to four months and others take 8 months to a year. It just depends on you. I always encourage clients to take time to review the plans, even pull out a tape measure and go to familiar spaces and measure that space and relate it to what we’ve drawn on a floor plan. It will help you envision the size of the space, and you’re familiar with the furniture in the space. Now you can get a handle on whether the rooms in the plan are big enough, too big or too small. It’s a good idea to do that. You can also choose our optional service and have a 3D walkthrough video done. Most times you need to sit on a Saturday morning with a coffee and review the plan and ponder. Envision yourself walking through the spaces. The 3D walk-through video will really help with this.

Is there anything you would like to add about waterfront homes?

Everybody is a bit of a specialist in this business. If you explore our portfolio, you will see that waterfront homes and cottages are one of the strengths of this firm. I’ve been designing them for over 30 years and hope to continue for many more. Every project is special, and we like to knock every project “out of the park” for every one of our clients, but the waterfront projects are particularly memorable.

Connect with us today to arrange a phone consultation with Jim.


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