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Hilltop House, near Collingwood, Ont., by Atelier Kastelic Buffey, the architectural firm of architect and interior designer Kelly Buffey and husband, architect Robert Kastelic. (Shai Gil/Shai Gil)
Hilltop House, near Collingwood, Ont., by Atelier Kastelic Buffey, the architectural firm of architect and interior designer Kelly Buffey and husband, architect Robert Kastelic. (Shai Gil/Shai Gil)

Hilltop House near Georgian Bay achieves quiet refinement Add to ...

One of the ideals in contemporary architecture is to connect indoors and outdoors, to balance the human habitat and the natural world. But that requires some subtlety: If you want a conversation, you have to talk and not shout.

This is exactly what the architects Atelier Kastelic Buffey are good at. For a recent house near Collingwood that they call Hilltop House, the Toronto firm designed a building that is big – about 7,000 square feet, including its lower level – and yet speaks, from the floorboards to the shape of its roof, quietly.

Hilltop House, near Collingwood, Ont., by Atelier Kastelic Buffey, the architectural firm of architect and interior designer Kelly Buffey and partner, architect Robert Kastelic. (Shai Gil)

The clients, a couple with three children, were moving here from a outer-suburban home with a French Provincial theme. They wanted this new home “to feel intimate – modest, rather than sprawling,” says architect and interior designer Kelly Buffey, who runs AKB with her partner, architect Robert Kastelic.

“We designed it so that it would unfold gradually: Even though it is quite a generous square footage, it doesn’t necessarily seem that way,” Ms. Buffey says.

From the front, the house looks like a bungalow, but the north side reveals a full level built into the hillside. (Shai Gil)

That effect is achieved through a mixture of a familiar form: a gabled roof, warm-toned woods and subtle modulation of proportions and details.

The house rests on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment near Collingwood, and it stretches along a hillside. It takes the form of a long bar, bent slightly in the middle, and wrapped with Western red cedar siding and a grey standing-seam metal roof. From the front door, to the south, the house looks as if it were a bungalow; but as the hill drops away, it reveals a full lower level in the hillside. This broad north side is lined with generous windows, which capture a grand vista north toward Georgian Bay.

The windows capture a grand vista towards Georgian Bay. (Shai Gil)

By effectively hiding half of the building, AKB manages to avoid the typical problem with houses of this scale – that they don’t feel very domestic. The family of five makes their primary home here, and so the house includes four bedrooms and a rec room. But those are all stashed downstairs, along with a pair of ensuite bathrooms.

The main level is reserved for the kitchen, dining and living spaces, all in one 15-metre-long room, plus a home office. These spaces are furnished with a mix of sleek built-ins in rift-cut white oak, a few Scandinavian modern furniture classics, and a heavy wood table that came from the owners’ previous house. This sequence of spaces, according to the clients, is highly adaptable.

The upper level is reserved for living spaces, including the kitchen. (Shai Gil)

“We can live our lives here,” the husband says. “It’s great when we are by ourselves; and it works when we are entertaining a large group.”

That main space has the quality that Danes call hygge. It’s large, but does not feel that way; AKB have proportioned it carefully, with high ceilings that reach up to the top of the roof gable and a row of slightly oversized doors and windows.

The main level features a fireplace made from local stone. (Shai Gil)

With a fireplace of local stone at one end and a sliding door made of reclaimed hemlock barn boards, it has some rustic notes.

Yet, the architectural details, overseen by Mr. Kastelic, are carefully worked out to be minimal. Outside, the walls and roof run together seamlessly, with the rain gutters hidden away. Inside, there are no mouldings: Walls and ceilings meet at precise corners. Instead of ducts and registers, air enters the room through a long, continuous slot along the ceiling. Clerestory windows pull in daylight from the south side of the house, balancing the wash of north light.

The bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms are stashed on the lower level. (Shai Gil)

Not that you would necessarily notice any of this. You’re more likely to be caught up in the scenery, a patchwork of fields and boreal forest that filter down toward the bay. The family settled here, the parents say, in order to enjoy nature year-round.

“This area carries all the seasons for us,” the wife says. “In winter you’re skiing, and in the summer you’re on the water.”

The family moved here to enjoy the outdoors year-round. (Shai Gil)

They family are also not obsessive modernists. They hired AKB after seeing another house the architects designed, which is barnlike in its shape and wrapped in cedar, at the nearby Alpine ski club.

They wanted their house, likewise, to have lots of glass and wood. And it does; the result is a mixture of country comfort and modernist refinement, a house that achieves great refinement without being too loud about it.

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