| Mar 05, 2009

Back to HomeFeature Article - March 5, 2009 New eco-lodge offers nature and the lost artsBy Julie Druker

Rena Upitis and one of the guest cabins

Back in April 2007, Rena Upitis, artist and professor of art education at Queen’s University, was in downtown Chicago attending a conference when the idea struck her.

Surrounded by the traffic, noise and bustle of Michigan Avenue for four straight days, she recalled feeling totally disconnected from nature but was comforted by the thought that soon she would be “back on the land”.

Realizing that most people do not share this privilege, she decided to design and build a not for profit eco-lodge, an off the grid facility committed to environmentally responsible practices. The lodge would function as a year-round education and retreat centre.

She would build it on a gorgeous 204-acre parcel of land that she has owned for 20 years, located off the Westport Road near Fermoy, on Canoe Lake Road.

She recalls her impetus: “I thought that this would give people a chance to see what a different part of the world is like. It is an offering so that people can connect with the land and what I call the lost arts”.

Once the decision was made, things happened quickly. Upitis gathered together a group of supporters and interested participants and spent the next 14 months negotiating her way through all the legal red tape. “The legal stuff took way longer than actually building the place,” she said, in an interview at the studios last weekend.

By June 8, 2008 Wintergreen Studios had became incorporated, the land was rezoned from rural to community institutional and a building permit was obtained.

Designed by Rena Upitis herself, Wintergreen Studios’ main lodge was constructed in the next 6 months and officially opened in December 2008. It was built with the help of four companies: the Anglin Group, Camel’s Back Construction, Peter van Bruinessen, who built the roof, and Quantum Renewable Energy, the designers of the solar panel system. They were joined by a slew of 200 interested participants and volunteers aged 7-83 years, including close friends, neighbours and family members.

The lodge they built is an impressive sight to behold.

“I really love the building,” Rena said

And it is no wonder. From the outside, mustard-colored parging covers the straw bale construction. Even the straw was sourced locally. Ample windows provide passive solar heat and lots of natural indoor light inside the 2300 square foot building. Twelve solar panels sit on the roof powering the lodge and heating its water.

Inside, one enters into the "great room", a large, kitchen/dining lounge area that can accommodate 40 individuals. Throughout the interior there is radiant floor heating under stone patterned cement floor panels.

Many of the furnishings are hand made from recycled materials and those that have been purchased are environmentally sustainable.

“Everything we use is as natural as possible. No VOC paints. Right now I’m oiling this counter top with hemp oil. The paint on the plaster of the straw bales is milk paint. It comes in powder form and you mix it in a blender. It’s made from milk and crushed berries and minerals,” Rena said.

“I’m principled but I’m not pure,” she said to explain the few small exceptions she made along the way. “Probably 90% of the materials we have used are eco-friendly.”

Recycled barn beams have been incorporated in the lodge’s interior construction and broken ceramic dishes add colour to the mosaic backsplash in the kitchen. Other indoor architectural accents such as baseboards and mirrors have been purchased at stores that sell architectural salvage. All of the appliances are among the most energy efficient available. Local foods are used in the kitchen as much as possible and staff are hired from the local community.

Not seen to the naked eye is an “Ecoflow” system for sewage treatment and management. Low flow toilets and water saver faucets were installed as well.

Five guest rooms, each offering picturesque views, lie off the main building and provide sleeping quarters for up to 14 guests. “There is no true north anywhere in the lodge so all of the rooms get sun,” explained Upitis.

The linens are all made from bamboo. The lodge has a south-western, New Mexico feel, which Upitis credits to a student volunteer from Arizona who helped with the project for 3 months and contributed to the overall colour and texture of the lodge's interior.

It is surrounded by ponds, marshes, forests, streams, rocky outcrops and foot bridges with over 20 hand groomed trails, all broken by Upitis and her family. A glacier carved lake borders the far end of the property. Also outside are 4 tent platforms for camping and a functional outdoor kitchen and smoke house. .

Two rustic, cozy rental cabins also built by Upitis and looking like they belong in a children’s fairy tale book lie at the end of a 15 minute walk further into the property. Both cabins sleep two and are heated by wood and powered by propane.

Two pilot workshops offered last year were a rousing success. Upitis recalled, “People were overwhelmed and joyful.”

Upitis is excited about the lodge’s upcoming one and two day workshops. They include a variety of short courses in the fine and domestic arts by local crafts people and artisans. Courses in drumming and drum making, fused glass, slow food and food smoking, book and box making choral singing, wool felting and knitting and building a root cellar are some that are on offer.

Wintergreen Studios also is available as a year round meeting place and retreat to groups and individuals seeking a relaxing and inspiring stay in the great outdoors.

Thanks to Rena Upitis and her army of supporters Wintergreen offers an opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds us in a sustainable responsible way.

For more information on year round workshops, rates and to view the facility please go to www.wintergreenstudios.com or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 613-273-8745.

Support local
independant journalism by becoming a patron of the Frontenac News.