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The exposed, wooden frame rises to double-storey height above the living area of the Mulmur township home designed by Mary Jo Hind and Fred Vermeulen. (Bob Gundu/Bob Gundu)
The exposed, wooden frame rises to double-storey height above the living area of the Mulmur township home designed by Mary Jo Hind and Fred Vermeulen. (Bob Gundu/Bob Gundu)

A rural retreat built on old bones Add to ...

Mary Jo Hind and Fred Vermeulen, architects and partners in life, hold down important jobs in the Dundas, Ont., office of the U.S.-base international design giant Perkins+Will. Their portfolios include large health-care facilities that just about nobody (except an architecture critic) ever really wants to see the inside of – cancer treatment centres, for example.

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But exactly because such places can be ominous, they demand from designers a special flair for clear, welcoming spatial flow, appealing surface treatments, and the shaping of bright, modern interiors and exteriors entirely free of the bureaucratic ordinariness common in hospitals from yesteryear. (Does anyone miss Toronto’s old Princess Margaret?) Ms. Hind and Mr. Vermeulen have this artistic flair, and they have impressed it on numerous institutional projects.

So what happens when architects accustomed to crafting heavyweight public buildings turn their hands to the very different task of designing a private home? Do they have to leave behind all the lessons they’ve learned while doing the big stuff?

I got some answers to these questions a couple of weeks ago, when I visited the 2,400-square-foot weekend retreat Ms. Hind and Mr. Vermeulen have designed for themselves on a patch of rough hill-country in southern Ontario’s Mulmur Township.

Of the several architectural features that make this tall hillside house interesting, the one a visitor sees first is the shape. An outline sketch of the wood-clad building would show a sturdy pitched-roof block book-ended by two massive chimney stacks – something with a simple, rural profile that puts the structure at ease among the barns and sheds in its neighbourhood.

But this house is no trendy homage to cultural context. Like good modernists from a half-century ago, these architects have been careful to express the building’s bones faithfully.

Whereupon hangs a tale. When they first got the idea of establishing a country seat, Ms. Hind and Mr. Vermeulen had hoped to discover a spread graced with an old, rambling barn that they could make over into a home. They didn’t find a suitable one, but the couple did locate and buy a fine 86-acre building site in Mulmur. Then, out on a Mennonite farm near Cambridge, Ont., they spotted a two-storey, pitched-roof grist mill about 160 years old.

To put their two finds together, Ms. Hind and Mr. Vermeulen bought the frame of the mill (which had already been demolished), then hauled off the pieces to Mulmur and reassembled the frame on the site. Next, they roofed the wooden skeleton, put up simple interior walls and faced the exterior in rough-cut barn boards, then added the one-storey annex that shelters the master bedroom suite.

But if its plain Victorian frame, wood wrapping and other touches give the house roots in the rural landscape, most of what Ms. Hind and Mr. Vermeulen have put on the bones is wholly contemporary. The ground-level of the main volume, for example, is encased in tall glass walls that look out toward rugged rural scenes in all directions. What could be more modern than all that glass?

It is on the inside, however, that the architects’ years of experience in thoughtfully moulding institutional space, texture and atmosphere are most evident.

The peaceful sense of the central volume’s open-plan interior, for example, is created by soft furniture forms, and by a palette of colour and material running to grey and brown. This could be dull were it not for the sharply focused incidents and details that invite the eye to linger, to enjoy and appreciate. The most conspicuous of these is the exposed, un-beautified wooden frame of the house, rising into the double-storey height above the floor level. One could easily spend a long hour gazing at this muscular system of heavily gouged, lacerated and battered beams, pillars and struts, which so boldly shows all the years of hard use it has endured.

Ms. Hind and Mr. Vermeulen have articulated the interior a bit by inserting a partition between the dining area and the living room. But they have avoided doing anything that might seriously interrupt the open spatial flow or the rich criss-crossing of sight lines.

Take, for an example of what I’m talking about, the very large kitchen area, crafted and outfitted by the high-end Bulthaup concern. Instead of stacking up storage compartments and grouping everything around a central focus, the architects have distributed the kitchen’s various components (fridge, sink, cook-top, storage units and so on) across a series of long islands arrayed parallel to one another and perpendicular to the glass wall. One reason he and Ms. Hind arranged the kitchen in this unusual fashion, Mr. Vermeulen said, was to prevent any blockage of a view.

Of course, an architect need not design hospitals to develop such commitment to uninhibited light, air and good views. But doing so might be good practice for residential designers if what we want are humane houses that work as well as this one.

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