As he travels towards the hills surrounding Creemore, Ont., Christopher Pommer is watching the undulating landscape. The architect is looking for a glimpse of steely blue that would give away the location of a modern two-storey addition to a century-old farmhouse.
But as Mr. Pommer leaves the highway and travels along a gravel side roads and finally down a long driveway to the farm, the building remains hidden from view.
It’s the architect’s first return visit since the addition was completed. When owner Carolyn Chapman comes out to greet him, they agree that the new wood-and-glass structure is remarkably sheltered.
“I do not want it to be visible,” says Ms. Chapman, who has become increasingly dismayed at the massive houses appearing on the scenic ridges and hilltops surrounding her family’s retreat.
Mr. Pommer credits the fortuitous placement of maples and spruce.
“It seems as if the trees are in the right place and at the right angle to block it,” Mr. Pommer says.
Originally, Ms. Chapman had wanted to employ a different sleight of hand: She intended to build an addition that would seamlessly blend with the circa 1890 brick farmhouse that she purchased in 1972.
It was time to replace an 80-year-old extension which provided a kitchen and some extra living space. Rain was seeping in and the sliding doors wouldn’t slide. Also, the Victorian-era farmhouse had lost much of its charm with the addition of some white siding and aluminum windows.
She planned to restore the appearance of the old house. The addition would be small, with no excessive building.
“Driving up here over the years, I’ve seen some abominations that Toronto people would put up,” she says. “People have gone berserk up here.”
When Mr. Pommer, a principal with Toronto-based Plant Architect, arrived at the 25-acre farm, he felt Ms. Chapman could achieve those aims but in a different way.
“Maybe there’s a way we can do this that’s not replicating the old thing,” he suggested. “Maybe we can do something new.”
Ms. Chapman was surprised but she quickly became excited by the idea.
Mr. Pommer and the other founding partners of Plant Architect, who met at the University of Waterloo in the 1980s, began their training when the post-modernist notions of designing buildings that fit within the context of their setting and surroundings were at the forefront.
“Seeing things that are old next to something new, there’s a very interesting conversation that can go on between them,” says Mr. Pommer. “Why not recognize that we’re building something new, but it should be sympathetic to the old part.”
When clients request Victorian or Georgian styles, he and his partners recommend other firms.
“Historical replication isn’t something we’re interested in as a pursuit.”
Mr. Pommer believes the design process should come from the specifics of the site, whether you’re adding on to something existing or starting anew.
“That same farmhouse is built all over Ontario and sometimes it’s on top of a hill and sometimes it’s at the bottom of a valley,” says Mr. Pommer of the original building.
In this case, the farmhouse sat on a rise overlooking a pond below and rolling farmland in the distance.
“The thing that was so incredible was just looking out at the spectacular view,” says Mr. Pommer.
For the addition, he recommended a simple and compact two-storey structure with large windows and an uncluttered interior to take advantage of the setting.
“One of the challenges we set was to work with the old foundation,” says Mr. Pommer.
The small area would include an entranceway, powder room, kitchen and living area. Stairs would lead to the second floor and a master bedroom with ensuite bathroom. More stairs lead to the basement, which in past years could only be accessed from outside.
“So at Christmas time, when you wanted to go to the freezer, you had to put your boots on and go outside,” says Ms. Chapman. “There was no way down to the basement for 20 years.”
Mr. Pommer cantilevered the living room over the basement to expand the main floor space. And ceilings more than 10 feet high add volume.
“It seems so much more spacious because the ceiling are so much higher,” says Ms. Chapman.
While working with the old foundation created design problems at times, it also led to some happy outcomes. Somebody sitting in the cantilevered area of the living room, for example, has a wider viewing angle.
“When you are trying to align things precisely, it really comes down to a fraction of an inch,” he says. “That’s part of the fun – when something you weren’t intending to do fits in with your intentions.”
Along the way, they considered adding a covered porch but instead opted for large sliding windows which bring light and breezes to the sitting area.
After the lengthy construction was finished, Ms. Chapman arrived to find that she could finally see out the windows again.
“The first time I came up on my own, poured a glass of wine and walked around remembering the views, I was interested to find that the house hadn’t lost its personality,” says Ms. Chapman. “It doesn’t feel like a different place.”
She also finds that the compact space is plenty large enough. The original house provides the large living room and dining room that are particularly inviting in winter. It has bedrooms for family and guests. The new portion provides the master bedroom suite where she can have her own bedroom, sitting area, and a bath with a view.
“We can put all kinds of people to sleep up there,” she says pointing to the second floor. “We can feed a crowd and have tons of people outside.”
Outside, the old farmhouse has a narrow clapboard siding that suits its era while the new addition has a wider wood siding. The deep blue-grey stain marries the two.
“They are tied together but they still have distinct characters.”