A high-concept cottage

Photographs by Ben Welland

It used to be a cottage, but Gord McMillan has found the 15-minute commute to his Sussex Drive marketing firm so simple that he’s selling his downtown condo.

In a Chelsea cottage, human design meets Mother Nature’s timeless beauty

As owner and creative chief at Ottawa’s McMillan marketing agency, Gord McMillan has long embraced visuals that challenge established norms. Nor does he shy away from paradox by design, as long as the end result succeeds in form and function.

That’s probably why McMillan’s irregularly shaped and newly renovated cottage-style home at Peter’s Point in Chelsea is, for him, a perfect fit.

Designed by local firm Urban Keios, the three-storey dwelling was built on a steeply sloping property in 1996. McMillan bought it in 2010 and began extensive renovations with one of the original architects, Nick Semanyk.

Full of quirky details, odd shapes, and bold perspectives, the house feels as though it’s made of monumental geometric puzzles.

“It is as if the architect put three separate blocks together,” McMillan observes. “One block has a pyramid as a roof, the middle block has a flat roof, and the third block pitches up at a slant. Each of these blocks is covered in a different surface, one being corrugate red metal, another being cedar shingles and a third in board and batten. The effect is definitely eccentric and one-of-a-kind.”

McMillan uses the term “blocks” loosely because, as he points out, with this unconventional design, “there are no right angles.” While he was drawn by the building’s ample space, large windows and dramatic sightlines, it was 15 years old when he took possession and in need of attention.

“We (he and his contractors) completely redid the kitchen, all the floors were redone and the master bedroom enlarged,” McMillan says. “The lower level, with access to the water, was remodelled with a new walk-in shower next to the sauna and a kitchenette.”

All told, the latest renovation took about five months.

Located just off Route 105, the home overlooks a section of the Gatineau River called Baie du Fer à Cheval (Horseshoe Bay). Stilled by a dam just to the south, the river here feels more like a lake.

“I call it Chelsea Cottage, but it is a very modern concept compared to what one might traditionally think of as a cottage,” its owner says. “In the renovations, I’ve made it even more mid-century-modern in esthetic, using lots of plain walnut and white and accessorizing with Eames chairs and the like. Everything about the place is a study in contradictions.”

An owl presides over the front door. At the back? Quirkily shaped windows.

Officially, there are three bedrooms, but like any cottage worth its salt, the place can sleep many more and often does.

“Friends and colleagues sleep over most weekends in the summer,” McMillan says. “We had a party for McMillan here last summer with about 60 employees and family members. Apparently, I’ve been told this has become an annual event.”

No surprise there. Just steps from the sleek, minimal interior, the visceral fun of bonfires and water sports awaits.

Clockwise from top: A nook for rainy day reading; a large square table sits eight; in a reno, the lower level was upgraded with a new shower next to the sauna; windows on two sides of the kitchen offer commanding views of the Gatineau River.

“Beyond kayaking and canoeing, my neighbour has a water trampoline that immediately transforms adults of all ages into giggling teenagers,” notes McMillan, who bought the place in the spring of 2010, partly because his ByWard Market condo was too small to host his adult children when they came to visit from Vancouver and Brooklyn, N.Y.


“I also wanted to reconnect with the natural world,” McMillan adds. “I have always chosen to live in the middle of cities; it felt like it was time to enjoy some solitude.”

Inside, summer living evidence includes a bookcase full of board games and well-thumbed paperbacks and an iconic Hudson’s Bay Company blanket draped in the sunlight.

“I couldn’t believe there was a place that felt so secluded just a short drive from my office in the ByWard Market,” says McMillan, who is now so at home in Chelsea Cottage that he’s put his downtown pied-à-terre up for sale.

“I thought I was going to do the town and country thing, especially in the winter,” McMillan said, “but the commute is 15 minutes.”

Cottage or no, this is definitely a year-round residence, and “each season, the place is transformed,” he says, gesturing toward the natural environs that surround the cottage.

At a Christmas party at the house, some of the young folks were tobogganing down the property’s steep incline.

“In winter, we usually clear a skating rink, as well,” says the marketing mogul, who, with his Chelsea Cottage, seems to have struck a blissful domestic balance between eye-pleasing human design and the timeless, life-affirming works of the world’s ultimate designer: Mother Nature.

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