I don’t know about you but I have summer homes (and what I’d do with one if I had one) on the brain. Big time. And what do you know ... so does interior designer and HGTV personality Sarah Richardson. Starting this Saturday (May 7) at 8 p.m., Richardson is bringing her popular HGTV Canada program, “Sarah’s Cottage,” stateside for its complete six-episode run.

Although the show has been renamed “Sarah’s Summer House” for American viewers, the program is exactly the same: Having conquered less far-flung but no-less-challenging renovation projects on “Sarah’s House,” Richardson sets her finely tuned remodeling sights on the Georgian Bay, Ontario, "bachelor shack" turned weekend cottage that she shares with her husband, Alexander Younger. Located on an isolated island 17 miles offshore, Richardson and Younger’s off the grid — it’s powered by a mix of solar, wind, and propane — getaway isn’t exactly a quick journey from their Toronto home and provides for some unique logistical challenges (did I mention that Richardson was pregnant during filming?)

On each episode of “Sarah’s Summer House,” we follow Richardson and her team as they conquer individual areas of the in-the-sticks retreat including the living area, bathrooms, master bedroom, guest rooms, kitchen, and last but not least, the guest bunkhouse or “bunkie.” Keeping in line with the home’s already minimal environmental footprint, Richardson’s extensive, whole-home renovation project is a nature-inspired, eco-friendly, and budget-conscious affair that incorporates numerous recycled and vintage materials. And true to Richardson's typical decorating style, the home is warm, inviting, and dramatic without being fussy. 

Richardson was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule of running her titular design firm, being a HGTV star, and raising two young daughters to answer a few questions I had about her latest televised renovation-fest to hit the States. On that note, to see Richardson in full eco-remodeling action, remember to tune in to HGTV on Saturdays at 8pm/7c starting Saturday, May 7!

MNN: You and your husband took your summer cottage on Georgian Bay off the grid by installing solar panels not last year, not five years ago, but in 1998. Although finding information on (and securing financing for ) residential solar isn't as difficult these days, did you find it a challenge in the 90s?

Sarah Richardson: I'm not sure how challenging it was for Alexander when he first embarked on the adventure (I'm on a transatlantic flight writing this, so I can't ask!). Part of the decision for solar was based on the fact that it was actually less costly than running hydro service out to the island. If you offset the initial outlay against the ever-after bonus of not getting a bill, it's great! Since we aren't tied to the grid in any way, we are unable to feed the excess power that is created when we aren't there back into the system, but it is nice to get the power we need when we are there. Running on solar demands that you be more aware of your power consumption and only run what you need, when you need it. I can only imagine how much power we could save as a society if we applied this same awareness of consumption to our daily lives!

You're Toronto-based but well-known in the US and the UK as well. Do you think average American viewers watching "Sarah's Summer House" will take away the same things as Canadian viewers? Are there any elements of the show that might be "lost in translation"?

It's much easier to embrace and be cogniscent of low-impact living when you are surrounded by the natural environment, as we are at the cottage. When you live in a dense city environment fuelled by high-tech conveniences, the concept of sustainability is less prescient. When building on a magnificent site surrounded by crystal clear water, it makes natural sense to try and compliment the surroundings as opposed to conquering them. The process of transporting every single piece of building materials to the island (and thereby also trucking away the garbage), forces you to consider every piece before going to the effort of bringing it out. Manmade elements look fairly out of place to my eye in such a wonderful environment.

As for 'lost in translation,' some might wonder what the appeal of spending weekends (or weeks!) on a tiny, remote island without hydro or ...TV! The entertainment, enjoyment, stimulation, and experience on the island comes from simple pleasures. While we generate enough power to run electric lights in the cottage, Alexander and I made a conscious decision not to install them in the main living area (even after wiring the ceiling for pot lights). We cook and dine and lounge by candlelight and gas lights. There's a single 15-watt light in the living room, and the bedrooms have lights for reading, but that's it! It's relaxing, romantic, and really wonderful!

Powered by the sun and built/decorated largely with reused materials, your summer home places high on the green spectrum. Does your primary residence tread just as lightly on the environment? Were there any green renovation projects that you easily executed at home but proved to be more of a challenge at your summer home? Or were there any projects easier accomplished in a far less urban environment?
We don't have the same experience at home, but Alexander installed solar panels on our office building which enables us to run all of the technology for our offices off the power we generate. I think it was easier to install the system in the city, but Alexander just makes it work!

Many folks shy away from eco-friendly home renovation projects because when they think "green" they think they'll wind up spending a lot more green than anticipated. This obviously isn't always the case. Do you have any recommendations for low-hanging fruit type of green renovation projects that can make a big difference but won't cost an arm and a leg, sacrifice comfort, or involve any changes in a home's infrastructure?

You need to take a long view about what you can save over the years by using better building materials, but there are easy and cost effective ways to reduce impact as well. I love re-using vintage or reclaimed building materials, and am a huge proponent of vintage furnishings over new, made-in-Asia alternatives. Shop local, buy vintage, and enjoy the process is my approach to design. I don't buy everything this way but keeping a healthy balance is fun and easy.


What areas of the cottage  did you find the most challenging to tackle while staying in a budget?

Kitchen and bath are always the toughest to tackle but they are there for the long haul. There are cheaper alternatives available but I always worry that the 'quick fix' solution is a temporary Band-Aid that will inevitably get tossed and replaced. I found a wonderful quote by Miles Redd years ago that I love: 'Buy the best and you only cry once.'  While his reference is related to luxury goods, I believe this sentiment can be applied to the process of buying anything of good, sustainable quality. I guess you could also say 'If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.' We learned to put the priority on buying quality when we found ourselves replacing the inexpensive options from when the cottage was first built.

How did "The Bunkie" come to be? 

I grew up at my grandparents' island cottages as a child, and both had little cabins. I always loved them and dreamed of having one on our island. It's wonderful to be able to let guests stay in their own little spot instead of sleeping in the main cottage with all of us (especially with babies in the house!). We had windows leftover, and some building materials, plus I had doors and additional windows that came from and Interior Design trade show. It seemed only natural to use up all the scraps and bits to get create the bunkie.  


Your partners in crime on "Sarah's Summer House" are your "design sidekick" Tommy Smythe, contractor Vito Colucci, and, of course, your husband, Alexander Younger. Were you all on the same page when it came to "green?" Or did you all learn new things from each other? 

It was a fun project and we all got on board with Alexander's overall plot and plan and vision for making it a reality. Tommy literally got 'on board' when he had the pleasure of paddling the septic tank to shore with Alexander, which was a definite first!

As a mother of two young daughters, maintaining a home that's healthy for your children is obviously just as important as maintaining a home that's healthy for the planet. Any specific household products that you rely on to keep your home free of toxins and safe for your children? 

I use Greenworks products and try to be careful about what we use.

If there's  one thing you want viewers of "Sarah's Summer House" to come away with what is it? 

It's worth the effort! We have to battle distance, accessibility, and weather to get to the island, but the journey and energy is rewarded ten-fold upon opening the door, smelling that wonderfully familiar cottage smell of the wood construction, and feeling our shoulders drop as we realize that we've just arrived at our own little slice of paradise. 

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

A bunkie of one's own: Q&A with Sarah Richardson
On 'Sarah's Summer House,' interior designer Sarah Richardson tackles a most formidable challenge: The eco-renovation of her off the grid summer cottage located