Maker’s Paradise: Andrew Szeto Builds the Perfect Tiny Off-the-Grid Lakeside Retreat

Monday Apr 19th, 2021

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Andrew Szeto is always seeking life’s next adventure, and sometimes, it finds him. With degrees in chemical and environmental engineering, Szeto was working as a technical officer for the Canadian Coast Guard in Ottawa. That is, until one of his supervisors discovered his side hustle—skateboard and motorcycle photography and videography—on YouTube. Now, he’s in charge of their branding and multimedia storytelling.

A man and dog on a canoe

Five years ago, Szeto began hanging out at Ottawa City Woodshop, a community woodworking collective where people who want to build things have access to space, tools and instructors. Combining his love of skateboarding and creating incredible things with his hands, Szeto has made one-of-a-kind pieces of furniturecanoe paddles and even a baseball bat – all crafted with meticulously cut and glued pieces of upcycled skateboards. 

But Szeto’s dreams got bigger: He wanted to build a non-traditional cottage, so when a friend showed him a vacant property with deeded access to Lac George in Quebec’s Outaouais region, Szeto was all in. He bought the one-acre plot–located about 75 minutes from his Ottawa condo–in 2017 and the following fall, he convinced some friends to help him build the perfect glamping spot: A wooden 10-x-10 A-frame cabin.

“I thought the A-frame shape was whimsical and fun,” says Szeto. “There’s just something magical about it, so that’s what I went for.”

Two buildings in the forest.

It takes a village 

Armed with a 3-D model created by his friend Richard Scott at the Ottawa City Woodshop and a $10,000 budget, Szeto headed into the woods to begin construction. It took one month of long days in pretty difficult conditions to build the cabin and a separate outhouse with a composting toilet. Although the land had been cleared, there were tree stumps everywhere, recalls Szeto.

“That first little while, we’d be tripping every other step, so we started taking out those stumps and small tree roots, which was challenging,” he says. “The other challenge was the weather: After the first few days, it snowed very heavily, and it was freezing cold. But it was really fun, and something of this scale is completely different than some of the smaller stuff I make.” 

Determined to source as many recycled materials as possible, Szeto found the doors and all but one window from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. Instead of pouring a foundation, Szeto used patio stones. He built the walls out of plywood, clad the structure with cedar shakes and topped it off with a dark green tin roof. The total cost of the build–including the food he ate during construction–ran about $10,000. 

Inside, the cabin features a small wood stove, a compact sofa and a hammock. The simple wooden A-frame can sleep up to four people snugly, and there’s even a whimsical climbing wall that leads to a cozy reading loft. 

A man climbing the rock wall he made in his living room

A star is born

Szeto’s time-lapse video chronicling the cabin’s construction with his makeshift crew of companions made him an accidental YouTube sensation. With currently more than 1.9 million views, the video tutorial immediately went viral, tapping into the very appealing budget- and eco-friendly tiny house trend, he says.

“It’s been really great, because I’ve made passive revenue–almost half the cost of the cabin itself–from my YouTube channel thanks to that video,” reports Szeto. 

Szeto now uses the cabin year-round, heading up most weekends. The lake is just a five-minute walk from his cottage, so Szeto spends lots of time canoeing and enjoying the gorgeous scenery during warmer months. When temperatures dip, he enjoys the place even more. 

“I really love being in there, starting a fire, feeding the stove and going from minus-10 to 20 degrees, trying to stay warm and cozy; that’s pretty fun,” says Szeto. 

“It’s a nice little getaway, where I’m off the grid. It’s well-insulated–it has R-20 all the way around, so it’s wrapped up pretty well, and I have a Vermont Castings Aspen wood stove in there right now, which really heats the place up. Fortunately, the wood shop I work out of has a ton of off-cuts ready to be thrown in the garbage, so I’m mostly able to heat the home with off-cuts and spare wood that would otherwise be thrown away. That’s been really great.”

Szeto still has plenty of room on his land to build onto his tiny home. “I might throw a deck and a skateboard ramp on there,” he says – but for now, he’s happy to have the ideal quiet escape for a maker who never stops dreaming big. 

A view from the outside of the building showing the rock climbing wall

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