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How Beside Habitat Protects 900 Acres of Land Through Development

A Bilingual Magazine About Nature and Culture Created its Own Private Natural Park
(Maxime Brouillet for Beside Habitat)
(Maxime Brouillet for Beside Habitat)

It’s not often that a commercial real estate project is designed to protect nature, but that’s precisely the mission behind Beside Habitat – a series of 75 cabins developed on a portion of a 1,254-acre (507 hectares) parcel located in Quebec’s Lanaudière region.

This unique approach to development may be partially a result of the project’s somewhat unconventional genesis. The creation of Beside Habitat was conceived and overseen by the team at Beside, an independent, bilingual magazine and website that covers the intersection of nature and culture. “Since our mission is to bring people closer to nature, we wanted to have our own natural space, and the [primary] objective in buying land was to preserve it,” explained Jean-Daniel Petit, president and cofounder of Beside. “We thought about preservation through real estate, and the project took off from there.”

Appareil Architecture designed the six different types of cabins and Rousseau Lefebvre, a multidisciplinary group of landscaping and environmental professionals, was tasked with the landscaping aspects of the project. They made sure to protect 84% of the land and created a natural park protected from development, which includes 40 km (26 miles) of trails and two lakes.

(Félix Michaud for Appareil Architecture)

“Beside wanted to have a positive impact on the natural environment, so their goal was to develop the land as little as possible,” said Marc-Olivier Champagne-Thomas, architect at Appareil Architecture

Using its own capital and funds from investors, Beside purchased the 1,254-acre (507 hectares) piece of land from a local businessman for a little over 2 million Canadian dollars (US$1,467,810).

The land allowed for the construction of up to 900 cabins, which would have been more profitable, but Beside wanted to give visitors the experience of being in a private cottage surrounded by the natural environment, according to Petit. Each of the 75 cabins is located on a densely forested parcel of land ranging in size from 2 to 6.5 acres (0.8 to 2.63 hectares), which fosters the sense of isolation and privacy that the Beside team was striving to create.

(Félix Michaud for Appareil Architecture)

Making the Most of Small Spaces

The primary goal behind Beside Habitat was to protect nature – including the hiking trails and lake access – and then divide a portion of the site into 75 individual parcels. Each of those 75 lots were then purchased by individuals who could select one of the six cabin variations – ranging in size from 700 square feet (65 square meters) to 1,200 square feet (111 square meters) – designed by Appareil Architecture. The smallest cabin features a mezzanine bedroom and also includes an additional mattress for extra guests. Some cabins have a bedroom or two attached as side pods, which creates more private space.

A cabin featuring a mezzanine bedroom. (Félix Michaud for Appareil Architecture)

“Since the cabins have a pretty compact area, we wanted them to be as functional as possible,” said Champagne-Thomas. Appareil Architecture thus choose integrated furniture for each cabin design to maximize the use of the surface area. Some of the furniture was customized and designed for the project by Appareil Atelier, Appareil Architecture’s furniture branch.

À Hauteur d’homme, a design office and fabrication shop that specializes in the design and fabrication of ecological furniture, produced integral furniture for the kitchen, including folding stools. The light fixtures were made exclusively for Beside by light design studio Lambert & Fils. “Everything that is found in the cabins was designed and engineered to be well-integrated within the space,” Champagne-Thomas said.

The light fixtures were made exclusively for Beside by light design studio Lambert & Fils and the kitchen furniture was built by design office and fabrication shop À Hauteur d'homme. (Félix Michaud for Beside Habitat)

Due to the Beside’s notoriety and existing readership, units advertised on their website sold like hot cakes. “We already had a clientele and we made something for them, so when it came time to sell, we didn’t have to advertise anywhere. We just announced the units and they were sold,” Petit explained.

Individuals who bought land were obligated to select their preferred cabin style and have it constructed within 36 months by local general contractor Janson Construction. At the time of publication, approximately 30 of the 75 cabins have been completed, with additional units currently under construction.

In 2023, common pavilions will be added on the Beside site in Lanaudière, including a coworking space, a library, bathroom facilities and a yoga studio. Twenty-five ready-to-camp pods are planned for 2023 as well, which will provide a more affordable offering.

(Félix Michaud for Appareil Architecture)

Making Nature More Accessible

One other appealing aspect of the project is that owners who are not using their units have the option of renting them out – with Beside facilitating and managing the process, including handling the booking, cleaning and laundry.

Rates for renting a Beside Habitat cabin start at $200 to $380 a night, depending on the number of bedrooms and the season, plus taxes and a cleaning fee.

(Félix Michaud for Beside Habitat)

All cottages have vehicular access and an electric charging station. Renting a Beside house is a turnkey experience that includes air conditioning, an espresso coffee machine, bedding, an Internet connection and, of course, copies of Beside magazine.

The rental aspect of the cabins helps to fulfill another one of Beside’s ambitions for the project, which was to make nature accessible to many people, according to Champagne-Thomas.

To rent a cabin, customers book directly on the Beside Habitat website. “The great thing about our business model is that we don’t need to use other tools,” Petit said. A unit is announced on Airbnb to enhance Beside Habitat’s visibility, but 95% of the sales volume happens on its own website.

(Félix Michaud for Appareil Architecture)

Beside Habitat cabins’ rental rates were not disclosed by Beside, but they are beyond expectations, according to Petit. “We have a satisfaction rate of 4.9 of 5 in public reviews, which is over 95%, after 4,000 stays,” Petit said. “People are happy, and it’s been going really well.”

The cabins have also become popular among remote workers. “We see that companies are reducing their office footprint and their related fees, so we think that this budget will not only be saved, but will be redirected towards employees’ well-being,” said Petit. “Some companies decide to give allowances to work in a cabin for three days. It’s proven that in nature, you’re 40% more creative.”

Rustic Meets Contemporary

Champagne-Thomas and his team wanted to create cabins typical of the Quebecois climate that are somewhere “between a contemporary project and a shack.” On the property, trails allow visitors to walk and to partake in two of Quebecers’ favourite winter sports: snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

A sauna is featured inside every Beside Habitat cabin. (Courtesy of Beside Habitat)

The sauna is another element of Northern culture that is highlighted in the cabins. During a trip to Finland, Jean-Daniel Petit and Eliane Cadieux, cofounder and creative director at Beside, realized that the Finnish embraced winter “more than Quebecers do”, according to Petit, and thrived in the contrast of hot and cold. “We decided on a sauna because Beside wanted to give its users many experiences through architecture and nature,” Champagne-Thomas said. “You can contemplate nature while being in the sauna. It’s a pretty northern experience.”

Appareil Architecture also wanted to highlight another cold climate element: the fireplace. Clients can use the indoor fireplace to heat the space as well as prepare meals; an outside private fireplace is available as well.

(Courtesy of Beside Habitat)

The Beside Habitat houses were also developed with large windows to minimize the distinction between the built and natural environment. “We wanted to use these windows to look at the landscape and to have a relationship with the external world, but also to allow natural light to come in and heat the open space naturally,” Champagne-Thomas explained.

(Félix Michaud for Appareil Architecture)

The First of Many Beside Habitat Locations

Beside Habitat is only getting started. The team recently bought another large piece of land in Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette in Quebec’s Outaouais region, about an hour north of Ottawa.

At the new site, Beside Habitat is planning to recreate the same concept, according to Petit, but with a giant greenhouse as a common pavilion. The 50 units should go up for sale next Spring, and the common pavilions and camping pods will be owned by Beside Habitat.

This time, cabins will be designed by architecture firm Naturehumaine. The Beside Habitat team is planning to hire a different architect for each project to make them distinctive.

Petit said that his team is actively looking for eight other locations across North America, notably in the Quebec City area, in Quebec’s regions of Estrie and Mauricie as well as in New York State.

“The objective is to eventually protect 500 million square feet (46,451,520 square meters) of forest and to have 10 locations across North America, so we are in this speeding up process,” said Petit. “The magazine keeps growing through it all, which allows us to be in touch with our community.”