This summer house is set on the banks of Lake Huron in a small, remote Canadian town about an hour’s drive from London, Ontario. While the architectural context might be characterised as somewhat conservative ‘cabin country’, this house attempts to extend the possibilities of the traditional lakeside family retreat through a contemporary architectural approach.

Lighting in Design spoke to Mark Bullivant, Director at SAOTA and Thomas Paterson, Director at Lux Populi, to find out the details behind the lighting of the project.

What was the brief for the lighting?

Lighting a home is all about how one will live in it. With the dramatic differences between summer and winter, we wanted to create an intimate, cosy, romantic atmosphere in winter, with views to the exterior, but an emphasis on the interior. In summer, we wanted something more like we would do in South Africa – encouraging life to spill out to the landscape, with no line between interior and exterior.

Were there different lighting requirements for the different zones/areas in the home?

We wanted the life of the kitchen to extend out to the terrace and pool, so the whole architectural element that slides from inside to outside carries a single approach – accent light for the cooking, dining and socialising elements, and soft landscape lighting to surround it. As the element slides inside, one’s eye is drawn up by pendants and a dramatically uplit wall element. Similarly, the stairs carry you up to more intimate space, so lighting from below carries the eye while suiting a late-night sense of almost being fire-lit. Using these traditional flows of light in a contemporary house took sensitivity – and good technique.

What challenges did you encounter on the project in terms of lighting and how were they overcome?

One of our biggest issues was how to have ceilings feel clean while actually including quite a lot of light. Our architecture expresses in the way the masses of the building engage with each other and peppering them with downlights wouldn’t help. Clean ceilings represent the masses best where possible. Organising the lighting into tight arrangements and neat details is key.

It’s always a mistake to think light should be located directly over the thing it is illuminating – modern lighting can often be shooting 30° across from where it’s mounted without creating any glare. This allows the graphic of the ceiling to be somewhat independent of the lit effect.

Which products were installed, and were any specialised fittings commissioned?

We used a wide range of products to achieve the variety of desired effects for the various zones, including; Aculux, BK lighting, Indy, Lite Lab, MP Lighting, Vista, Hydrel and Lithonia. We also developed our own custom light fixtures and recessed slots to light up the vertical timber screens that punch through all three levels of the interior.

More than the specific models, the hardest part of a scheme like this, especially in the age of LED, is a deft touch with colour temperature. This house is dominantly warm, but cooler notes are used in landscapes and pools to emphasise the values of those elements.

How do you believe the lighting used in the project adds to the design?

Ultimately, I hope the owner will be the one to answer this – but we hope we’ve created the space he wants to live in – different throughout the day and the year. During the day, daylighting is mostly sufficient, but a little bit of accent helps on the grey days to make it feel awake, alive and warm. At night, I hope our client and his family gather in the warm social spaces and see and feel each other, far more than they do the house – it’s a beautiful container for the life that will happen within.

This is emphasised in the decorative lighting elements created by our collaborators at ARRCC and OKHA – their beautiful decorative lighting was visioned coherently with the overall home design. Decorative lighting can create richness and experience as well as being a jewel in the overall jewellery box.

We did only the slightest exterior lighting, taking the contrast off the building here and there, but otherwise drawing the eye inwards through the windows – set in a private location, the inner life expresses outwards to the arriving family as a welcome and a sense of home.

In your opinion, how important is lighting in a residential environment?

The most important thing is that we remember it is someone’s home, not a Pinterest page. How people will live in a house and find joy in it matters most. Fortunately, that often aligns with beauty!

Lighting is an editing tool, of emphasis and deemphasis, of revealing and concealing, so visually, key questions are around what we want to see and experience. But it is also a psychological tool, giving access to emotions and perception. For example, people want to gather around a psychological fireplace – lighting in the centre of a room draws people to gather, intensifies the social experience. We want light at night that is physically low level, high contrast and very warm colour temperatures. Especially in northern winters.

These are values of technical performance – glare management, dimming, contrast control, optics and many other technological values. At SAOTA we collaborate with specialists, because we understand our clients and their lives, and value the knowledge that helps us deliver the best. If we can help our clients and their friends gather and talk, laugh and love, then that is a great ambition for lighting – delivered in cold, technical thought!

SAOTA has collaborated with Lux Populi on over 25 projects, some complete, many in-flight. Learning to collaborate as a team takes time and attention, but the result is that we were able to deliver this project with SAOTA taking the lead and doing all the legwork, and a little bit of advice and support from Lux Populi. That is a very conscious working relationship.

We’d always encourage architects to seek specialist help, but also to have the confidence to learn and deliver – after all, lighting is about expressing architecture and supporting the way people will live in a home – exactly the things we consider as architects. Collaboration isn’t about having a second layer wrapped over our work, but about making all design thinking a fundamental part of our work.

Looking back at the completed project, what are your thoughts?

This project was great fun – a chance to collaborate and imagine, and I look forward to sharing a drink with our client there someday soon.

The design of the home

While the aesthetic approach that Cape Town-based architecture firm SAOTA took might seem like a radical departure from traditional regional architecture, the architects have taken great care to keep the design unobtrusive and sensitive to its setting, while still making an architectural statement. The site is a bluff occupying the transitional space between water and forest, rising 3.5 m from road level and then dropping down to the water to create a grassy embankment. The building is set back on the property towards the street to preserve the natural bluff. On approach, the house is largely concealed by the surrounding mature fir trees, appearing as a simple light-coloured stone box floating effortlessly between the tree trunks.

The rear of the house, facing Lake Huron, dissolves into a two-storey wall of glass, washing natural light deep into the interiors. Conceptually, the design consists of a series of stacked and suspended rectangular boxes, one embedding the building into the ground plane, the other suspended overhead to allow the living level to exist between the volumes. An indoor/outdoor volume to the south anchors the building and maximises the site’s lakeside views while allowing the living spaces to occupy the foreground. A bank of bedrooms projects backwards above the garage.

The way in which the building is largely obscured from the street and, in turn, screens views of the lake helps build suspense on arrival, only to satisfy the sense of anticipation on entry via the large pivot door. From the threshold, a dramatic triple-volume atrium lets in natural light and draws the eye outwards towards the view. Programmatically, in keeping with the client brief, the spaces are fluid, the levels easy to navigate and the layout simple and well-structured, allowing for a casual atmosphere.

The vast central volume is subtly contrasted with more intimate and contained volumes in the kitchen and other living spaces for a varied and articulated spatial experience. The upper-level, housing the master bedroom, is devoted entirely to the owners’ private space, including an office and a gym. To the front of the house, a covered outdoor entertainment area flanks a swimming pool. A boardwalk and staircase descend to a refurbished cabin that predated the house, and now houses a guest suite and additional outdoor entertainment area to facilitate long summer days playing on the lake.

The finishes, externally and internally, favour a ceramic panelled system robust and hard-wearing enough to prove long-lasting in the extremes of the Canadian climate, which together with the home’s energy efficiency and the general longevity of the project and its materials, components and fittings contribute to its sustainability.


Project location: Ontario, Canada

Lead designers: SAOTA

SAOTA project team: Mark Bullivant, Johan Basson & Paulina Paz

Architect of Record: Matter Architectural Studio Inc.

Electrical engineer: Capson Electrical

Contractor: MCI Design-Build Corporation

Lighting design: SAOTA with assistance from Lux Populi

Interior designer: ARRCC

Photographer: Adam Letch