Bunkies in Lake Ontario Canada

“These “bunkies” are in the Thousand Islands area that forms the border between south-eastern Ontario and New York State. The area has been mainly farmland since it was first settled during the mid-1800’s.

The bunkies face south across the lake. Because of the setting, with open fields, limestone shelves along the shoreline and open water, there is a very east-coast feel to the land.”


Karen is planning on building a bunkie on her property on  Simcoe Island shown in the last picture but she has some concerns. You can read them here and if you have any suggestions use the comment section to give her your take.

I would like to build a bunky next summer (actually, a friend who is a carpenter is going to build it for me.) The provincial building code defines a “building” as a structure that is greater than 10 square meters, equivalent to 108 square feet. That footprint maximum includes a covered deck where supports for the roof of the deck are anchored into the ground (and may also include an porch area that is not covered.) Technically, anything that is not a “building” according to this definition and size is not covered by the building code and so does not require a building permit. However, it’s my understanding that there is a good deal of “discretion” that can be applied by the local building official, so considerations of shoreline set-backs of 50 feet, height restrictions of 14 ft and assumptions that a bunky will be an adjunct building to a “primary structure” (i.e., a building that has been installed according to the building code) may also apply. These two bunkies have been in place for at least 10 years, maybe longer. Since then, other islanders have put up bunkies, some as additions to a main building on their property and some on vacant land similar to mine. I guess my worry is that I would be halfway through putting the bunky up, only to have the building inspector in the area and tell me I have to stop.

In the attached photos, there is one with a small deck which is 11 by 11 on the exterior, plus the deck.  It is the only structure on the property. The other place is probably 10 by 10, away from a main house, but the deck certainly extends out from there and right on the shore line.  My property in between: I think my biggest challenge will be that it is vacant land with no existing primary structure. I have always wanted to build something small on the property, ideally about 250 square feet, but in the 9 years since I bought it, the local rules have changed, and now you cannot get a building permit for a “building” smaller than 950 square feet.  So the only real alternative financially for me is to go small and comfy, which is fine, because besides the two ferry rides, the distance by land to the property is only about 6 miles from home. Perhaps ignorance of the rules would have been a better source of bliss, and most of the folks I have spoken to know about the 108 square foot rule, but not the other considerations.  So much for being curious…

Anyhow, if you do have thoughts or suggestions, that would be great. –Karen



32 thoughts on “Bunkies in Lake Ontario Canada”

  1. One option might be to try and do this in two stages. Since this is coastal land you might want to ask about a “boat house” a simple storage facility to store your canoe (wink, wink)…get a permit to build that. Surely they might see that a storage “shed” for a canoe does not have to be greater that 950 feet. Once that is completed and “signed off” you perform a minor interior remodel…from a distance it would still look the same and already be approved by the building official, so it might keep suspicion down.

  2. Karen, I suggest going to your local building inspector and asking him your questions. Most building inspectors are actually helpful when you approach them before starting a project. Most residential areas in the US have a similar zoning rule that structures over 100 sq ft or so require a permit (and therefore those that are smaller do not). It sounds like you shouldn’t have a problem if you stay under your 108 sq ft limit. I would not suggest trying to build larger in violation of the code. That’s when you upset your neighbors and building inspector and they force you to stop halfway through. Bake a batch of brownies and take them to your local building inspector and ask him what’s allowed on your property. Treat him like a friend, not an enemy, and you’ll be glad you did.

  3. Thanks, Kevin. Good suggestions. Just to clarify, I won’t need a permit for anything less than 108 square feet, as technically that’s not a “building.” If I already had a house on the property (a “primary structure”) then I wouldn’t have any need at all to hesitate. The worry (and I might be making way too much of this) is that “accessory” buildings are just that–accessory to a primary structure. If there’s no house then, strictly speaking, you can’t put up and accessory structure–period. There’s no sort of permit for that sort of thing. But I may be wrong and, if so, I would love to hear the correction! Thanks again!

  4. Thanks, Jesse! I will do that. And if it were possible to bake, sew or knit a “bunky”, I would have had one long before this! Thanks–I will take that perspective as building-inspector-as-friend from now on.

  5. Karen,

    I’m intending to do something very similar on Wolfe. I wanted to build a 960 sq ft building using an Earthbag building processes and approached the building inspector and got a very negative reception because it wasn’t ‘normal’ or ‘marketable’… Now I’m intending to build a few small structures each under 100 square feet.

    I think in some circumstances, approaching the building inspector, palms open will work, particularly when they are a local member of the community and an open minded individual. Through my personal dealings with the inspector, and family dealings in other jurisdictions where he is also the building inspector, I don’t think he will let you do a single thing unless it is explicitly permitted in the planning act (or through a minor variance) or in the OBC. He doesn’t flex. If you want to build under 108 sqft I wouldn’t tell him, but make sure it’s done right. If you want to build over 108 sqft, I would follow Kevin’s advice above and build a garage to ‘store tools in while you build the larger house’… …that never gets built…

    One of the Pikes’ did something similar down on Hwy 95 when they built a ‘garage’ near their house. The planning act clearly states that you can’t have more then one residence on a property unless the second residence is for a farm hand. But their new ‘garage’ looks a lot like a small in-laws cottage… They did get a permit, but it’s well under the 940 rule so it was built as a garage… A very nice garage…

    When you read through the township planning act (it’s available on their web site) it’s easy to get a bad feeling in your stomach, but after a few conversations with some other local individuals in Marysville, I think pleading ignorance and going ahead is a viable option… I think you’ll have councillors and politicians on your side.

    Another option would be to build two small structures and put a deck between them. So long as the deck is free standing and not attached to either structure, you should be okay. Another interesting point in the planning act, is that tents are explicitly not considered to be a structure. Therefore you could conceivably use tarps or awnings to link smaller structures together without violating either the planning act or the OBC…

    Food for thought,

    • Hi Ian
      Thanks for this…I have heard of similar experiences from others in the area. I like the idea of starting with one under 108 sq ft with the possibility of building other such structures. Just so that I understand, is your property otherwise vacant? As I mentioned in my original message to Kent as posted above, the problem isn’t with the small size, it’s that the 108 sq ft or smaller bunky will be the only thing on the property. It’s my understanding that this is not permissible, even if such a small structure doesn’t require a building permit…or am I missing something?

      Interesting that tents are not “structures.” That makes me wonder about a yurt. A friend of mine put one on her property north-west of the city. She was told by the building inspector in her area that it was an “non-permanent” structure that could only be put up once a “permanent” (i.e., house) structure was built. Nevertheless, she put it up anyway and so far, no problems. Might still be a challenge, though, given that the winds on my property can be pretty wicked.

      Thanks again. I’ll watch out for your collection of bunkies!


      • Neat stuff. I plan on doing pretty much the exact same thing, just north of Belleville, Ontario… very close. I purchased 16 acres this spring and in a few years I plan on building a strawbale home, however next spring I’m going to put up a 108sq ft bunkie. 9×12 exactly.

        You are incorrect in your assumption that a building of 108sq ft or less is not permissible if it’s the only building on the property. Being an “accessory building” has nothing to do with it. The building could be used as a shed, a bunkie, a sauna… whatever… it’s completely within the bylaw allowances that any structure under that specified size doesn’t require a permit.

        I’ve already showed the local building inspector my plans and he said they’re fine and since they’re within the limit I don’t need a permit (unless I put electricity in it… in which case I need a permit for that, but not a building permit for the structure). The strawbale house design on the other hand… yeah, that’s another story. Similar to Ian above with his earth bag method, inspectors are hesitant with anything other than standard stick frame. I already know I’ll need an engineer onsite for the entire strawbale building portion.

        At one time I was also thinking of doing the two, 108sq ft buildings, separated by a free standing deck. Great minds think alike!

        You should also note, in fact you did, that the 108sq ft limit is the provincial code. Your local code may differ. In Ontario I know of local codes that are 96, 108 and 120 sq feet.



        • Thanks, Gerry and Ian. This is great info!

          Ian, that’s correct, it’s at the west end of Simcoe, facing south over the lake. Gerry, I’m pretty sure that someone built a strawbale place on the north side of Simcoe Island last year. They kept a blog about it, so if you do a Google search you might be able to find it–might be useful if you still go that route. You probably already know about the Ontario Strawbale Coalition. A farmer in Centreville used to lead it and he has a wonderful strawbale home. I also dreamed of building strawbale. And apparently, CMHC has done a number of studies/reports on the integrity of strawbale buildings, which could be useful too.

          Ian, I love the tiny house community idea. Do you have plans for designs or how you’ll space the structures, or are you going to let it evolve organically? I want to plan mine over the winter, and so far am inspired by this web site, as well as by David Minch’s architects studio, which can be found on-line as well as in Lester Walker’s book “Tiny, Tiny Houses.”

          It seems that we might have an informal south-eastern Ontario/Frontenac and the Islands tiny house society! Thanks again!

        • Hi Gerry,

          I live just south of Belleville. My partner and I are planning on building a tiny house, and I am looking for people in the area who have already done so. Would you be able to contact me about it? My e-mail address is mihal@mihalzada.ca and my phone number is 613-970-1224. Also, if anyone else in this thread wants to talk to me or give me advice I would really appreciate it.

          Thank you!

      • Karen,

        The property I have is currently vacant, so we’re in the same boat, although you may have some additional restrictions due to your proximity to the water… I’m guessing you’re out on the end of Simcoe, maybe 9 Mile Point? Out there you’ve got a RU RUral zoning. I’m ‘in’ the village, the RV Rural Village zoning… So I think you’ve got a bit more flexibility.

        As I read the bylaws, you don’t explicitly have to have a house built in order to build an accessory building if if the accessory building is associated with that use of the property. It says that the property use must be ‘established’ but doesn’t actually say that you must have built a house to make it residential… Therefore you could build a private garage, an accessory to a house before the construction of the house. The catch is that the bunkie can’t be confused with a house, or as they term it a dwelling unit, because then it becomes too small…

        The zoning bylaw defines a dwelling unit as:
        2.62 Dwelling Unit — Shall mean a suite of two or more rooms… …in which sanitary conveniences are provided, in which only one kitchen facility is provided for cooking…

        And in my mind, a bunkie is not all of those things… And you don’t exceed your limit of 1 dwelling unit…



  6. Karen & Gerry,

    My initial 960 sqft house design was complete, but I’ve decided that these smaller buildings will be more organic. I’m located in an area just south of the village and don’t have a view, so I’m planning to arrange the buildings in a small ring. Each will have a nearly flat roof for rain water catchment, and heating will be by in-floor radiant from a central source which will be fed by solar evacuated tubes. The first building will be the bathroom, the second a kitchen, then a bedroom, living room, and probably another bedroom… I’m hoping to build one a month starting in May, and once I have bathroom facilities then working on the island becomes much more feasible. I’ll augment the living arrangements with a tent until the bedroom is closed in…

    There is also a straw bale house house that was built near Oak Point Road on the eastern half of Wolfe Island over the last year or so. My dad designed it for a client, but I don’t think that they required an engineer on site, although one was required to sign off on the plans. That was however under the eye of the previous building inspector…

    There are so many things that are a matter of judgement. The TFI (Township of Frontenac Islands) has one clause in the bylaws that state that a residential dwelling unit can also have a shed of 120ish sqft. But it doesn’t specify if it can be bigger or smaller, whether it can pre-exist the house, or if you can have multiple sheds. I’m inclined to believe that this clause is to protect the owner to specifically allow them a shed, but it does create some ambiguity. Aside from setbacks, separations and lot area coverage, I don’t think there is an unreasonable limit as to how many ‘sheds’ that could be built. I think we’re all on the same page… Lots of people have outhouses. I’ll simply have an outhouse with running water, a composting toilet, a tub, and heat. And a shed with a full kitchen, and a shed also known as a bunkie… So long as I’m within the spirit of the bylaw, in terms of intended uses within a zoning area, and we don’t break any rules regarding setbacks, then I believe that what we’re talking about is completely legitimate…

    Karen, I think you may be right in saying that we have a South Eastern Ontario Tiny House Society…


    • Acting within the spirit of the by-laws is good advice, Ian, and as EJ writes below, the same can be said for acting in good faith, especially as it has the potential to impact one’s neighbours. Which takes me back to Jesse’s imperative above to connect with the local inspector, at least initially.

      And in my experience, baking brownies can go a long way towards enhancing communication between just about anyone, as can a mean chocolate-chip-oatmeal cookie.

    • Awesome stuff. Would be very interested to follow the progress. I’ve thought that layouts with multiple structures, each within the no-permit-required criteria of an area, would make for an excellent thesis project for a student.

      The only issue with the layout is that with so much exterior wall space ( I guess every single wall is exterior ) there’s more heat loss than with larger, multi-room dwellings. However if the heat source is from solar hot water (free, once it’s setup) that won’t be an issue for most of the year.

      My plan is to get a well in as early as possible next spring. Then one weekend to put in the foundation piles and the following to build the entire structure. Outdoor shower and a sun-mar toilet in an outhouse will get the job done as far as the bathroom goes.

      As for the strawbale, there’s actually a builder who lives about 15 minutes from where my property is. Chris Magwood (has books on Amazon). He also teaches alternative building methods at Sir Sanford Fleming College I’ve recently learned. Brownies are key, eh? hmmm… they may be a key to me picking his brain for knowledge.

      It does stink about needing an engineer on site. That’s because the township I’m in aren’t that familiar with the method. Whereas Madoc township is very familiar with it and, like any other blueprint, just require a structural engineer to approve the prints. No onsite engineers required. Oh well, it’s handy to have friends who are architects and engineers. They’re all well aware that they’re ‘volunteering’ (I volunteered them) for the strawbale build.



  7. Where I live in BC the building code/bylaw says
    A Building or Plumbing Permit is required when you wish to:
    *construct a new building, including temporary and farm buildings

    No exemptions for small etc that I know of. Of course people build anyway especially in out of the way areas. But if you are caught and don’t comply fines etc are possible.

    I have an acquaintance who built a “garage” with a permit. She had to work hard to convince the inspector she wasn’t going to live in it. Then she did. “Good” for her – makes it harder for the next person who wants to try this approach.

    Our bylaw also says: No person shall knowingly submit false or misleading information to a building official in relation to any permit application or construction undertaken pursuant
    to this Bylaw.

    PS is baking brownies to convince the inspector that you are a knowledgeable builder/responsible owner the recommended method for men, too? 😉

  8. Hi Karen – You’ve gotten some good advice, but the best advice will come from your building or community development department, and the local health district. If they see that you’re acting in good faith, it will go far to pave the way for your plans. I’ve had ‘great’ fortune with being straight with my building and health officials, and they’ve in turn actually sought out avenues for ME, to facilitate my goals.

    Trying to pull the wool over would just about guarantee that you’d have a steeper road.


    • Hi Susan

      Thanks for your words of wisdom. As you suggest, these folks are important resources. I really only want a small structure that is smaller than a “building”, just 9 by 12 or comparable size. We’ll likely never spend more than a night or two at a time in the bunky, since it’s only a few miles from home, so neither will we need any on-grid amenities. Outhouses abound. Besides the discussion here, I’ve also spoken to folks in the same area as me, and it does seem that there is considerable variation in how the rules have been interpreted, in their direct experience. Whatever the range of acceptable options, I’m trying to find an acceptable option, and I think that this discussion will help me get there.

      Thanks again!


  9. This was great information, I have the same issue as Karen in Lancaster, California it’s considered LA County I am zones for A2 and single family home but I two have land with nothing on it and want to build a small house, in my area the unpermited size is 120sq ft but I was told that needed a primary permited structure as Karen mentioned. But as I look around more and more I am noticing that there could be a legal way around this issue. Please advise more.

    I am launching a line of small homes, check it out at http://www.teacuphomes.com and please give me your thoughts.


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  11. A suggestion would be to build your bunkie of 108sq ft (ie not needing a building permit), then later build another one, a freestanding structure, beside first one. With a door between the two you simply use this as your 2nd room. No permits required as long as each one is a freestanding structure.

    Another possibility is to get a permit for a garage so you can build a simple structure without septic, plumbing, etc.

    Good luck!

  12. I am taking a course on National Canadian Building code – under 4 stories, under 600 square meteres, one does not need an architect or engineer’s stamp to design and draft the plans. The 108 square foot thing applies only to sheds – if you intend to live in it, then it is not legit… however, if you intend to store your lawn mower in it, but happen to have bunks set up because that’s what you want, then there’s nothing technically wrong with that…

    BTW, there’s no place in Ontario called Lake Ontario… that’s the name of a lake… it makes this website seem really American to refer to it as that… wherever this mini house is…

  13. Hi, Tiny House Builders {Eastern Ontario}

    I want to put a tiny house/bunkie on 2 acres owned by family.

    Local township council folks say THERE IS NO WAY THEY WILL PERMIT THIS.


    All responses are welcome.



  14. I am in the process of purchasing a property on Wolfe. I spoke with the Town and was told, in no uncertain terms, that no shed can be built without an established dwelling first, period! This was put into place in 2005 and was to stop people from erecting small cabins. After further reading of council minutes, some residents are upset that these vacant land owners who use the their bunkies during the summer pay next to nothing in taxes but benifit from all the services. While this seems like a valid argument, anyone using a bunkie like this takes advantage of little town services and in turn pumps money back into the local economy in the way of store purchases ect.

    • Hey Wilbour
      With all due respect to the members of the council, this is, in my view, not an accurate reading of the local bylaws, provided the structure is within the 108 square foot limits. If I was a betting person, I would bet that if you took this position/argument to a lawyer able to interpret the bylaws accurately, you would encounter the same counter argument.

    • Hi Wilbour: With all due respect to the members of the council, this interpretation of the bylaws and the provincial building code. I haven’t looked at the bylaws in a while, but I seem to recall that there is a separate definition of “shed”, in addition to the exemption for structures that are 108 square feet or smaller. I would venture to bet that if you took council’s arguments to several different lawyers, they would say the same.

  15. As a follow up I did purchase the property which had an Accessory Building in disrepair. I am in the process of repairing it to store my “recreation stuff”.

    I have read the bylaws inside out and they clearly state you cannot build an Accessory building until the “primary use of the property is established” . Council will lead you to believe this indicates a home must be built first. That’s one interpretation. But if you primarily camp or garden your land then you can build a small Shed/Accessory building to house the items for said purpose.


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