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On May 8, the Ontario Association of Architects hands out its annual awards at a hotel in Hamilton.

This is no gathering of ivory tower types eating a nice dinner, exchanging secret handshakes and discussing arcane things like architraves and flying buttresses. This stuff affects us all where we live. Or, as OAA president Toon Dreessen says bluntly: “Design matters.”

“Our built environment impacts how we feel, how we live, how we work; it impacts our effect on climate, climate change, sustainability, natural resources, and architecture is an economic driver.”

He also suggests a look at this year’s winners and honourable mentions in the Design Excellence category might be of particular benefit for a those who are house-hunting. “Most houses aren’t designed by architects,” he says, “but as more and more Canadians see the value architects bring to design, they recognize that the investments they make in hiring an architect to design their house is worth it, and pays off in the long run.”

All photos by Scott Norsworthy.

It paid off for the owners of a Port Hope house by Teeple Architects. A couple with high-stress jobs and two kids were in need of a peaceful retreat to recharge their batteries. This OAA honourable mention situated on 75 lakeside acres with an abandoned Grand Trunk Railway path deserves more than just a mention, however, says Mr. Dreessen, because “it sits lightly on the land [and] it breaks a design mould” while meeting “the owners’ objectives.”

“It is a pretty unusual piece of property,” says architect Stephen Teeple as he pushes a branch aside to climb the spongy embankment beside the railway cut. Once at the top, he points out the expanse of Lake Ontario to the south – so big and azure-coloured it could be an ocean – and the twisting form of the house; like a giant zinc-scaled snake, the long building rises from the ground (the green roof helps the illusion), until it’s tall enough to sprout windows and doors. Finally, it curves to “meet” and drink in the watery views via two enormous, stacked window-walls.

Mr. Teeple says the design, which was project-managed by Luc Bouliane, can be likened to “a flower opening up to the sun,” although he quickly concedes “that sounds a bit corny.”

Through the front door, which is sheltered by a long, modernist portico that sports a cutout for a tree, we enter at the mid-point of the home and face a long corridor that stretches in both directions.

A left turn leads to teenagers’ bedrooms, a home theatre, and, outside, a heated lap pool (the Danish owner swims in all seasons) cradled by thick concrete walls that, a few feet away, hold up the house. These tapering walls also direct one’s gaze to another view. “We didn’t want it to be just about the water,” Mr. Teeple says, “because the countryside is a huge part of what this is … [the clients] have a historic connection to [this land].”

Turn right, and the corridor curves dramatically to reveal the dining area, living room, and kitchen, which are drenched in natural light pouring in from the window-wall. “The curve really separates the private from the public, without any real barriers,” Mr. Teeple explains. Sit in the living room and it really is an “om” moment: in the distance, big sky and the still blue line of the lake; in the foreground, the dark streaks of countless birds flitting from bird-feeder to branch and back again. Face the other way and it’s just as soothing: a warm fire in the fireplace or the cool curve of the white wall.

A lovely staircase takes one up to the master bedroom, master bath and home office. Interestingly, while the views are huge up here as well, the rooms are not. “He actually wanted these rooms fairly small,” Mr. Teeple says. “He didn’t want a big, big house.”

A rich-yet-limited materials palette – concrete, wood, metal, stone – tie together the different areas of the home; yet, surprises can still be found. For instance, a tall atrium brings natural light deep into the basement; there are cantilevered places that giver the illusion that you’re floating over the landscape (the family dogs usually hog these); and a good chunk of the kitchen back-splash is, well, nature, as a long, thin window stretches across at counter-height.

“It’s very much like a little, civil kind of place in a more rough landscape,” Mr. Teeple says. “I kind of think of it almost as [the clients’] boutique hotel in the countryside.”

It’s a home that takes care of itself, sustainability-wise: heated concrete floors are powered by a geothermal system; the thick concrete walls passively hold solar energy; and the many operable windows and clerestories provide natural ventilation when it gets stuffy. Sewage is treated on-site and rainwater is collected for irrigation.

These features, Mr. Dreessen, the OAA president, says, remind us that sustainable houses don’t have to resemble “a little shoebox sitting on the land.” They can “be a stunning piece of architecture.”

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