When Christine Gilbert and Henri Guénin started looking for a new home in Quebec City two years ago, they needed something to accommodate a blended family. Mr. Guénin has two daughters from a previous relationship, and would like two more with Ms. Gilbert. Together, they were hoping for five bedrooms, all on the same floor, with a yard for their clan to congregate. “It was important to have space for everyone,” Ms. Gilbert says.
But the couple, both accounting professors, work from home most of the time and didn’t like the idea of being isolated in the suburbs, where the size and sort of home they were seeking tends to be. “We like to walk,” Mr. Guénin says. That said, they also have two cars, for when they need to commute to Laval University, necessitating a garage.
After scouring for something central, “we soon realized that what we wanted does not exist,” Ms. Gilbert says. Turns out, there is a dearth of lawns, parking and five-bedroom places in the middle of the 400-year-old town (built, as it was, at a time when cars weren’t a thing and kids would have been lucky to have their own bed, let alone their own bedroom).
Instead of compromising, though, Ms., Gilbert and Mr. Guénin found a creative site and solution to their problem. Just west of Quebec’s historic centre lies the once derelict Saint-Roch, an inner-city ‘hood that was hollowed out when middle-class families started leaving central areas for the suburbs in the 1950s and 60s.
But starting in the early nineties, the city provided over $400-million in investment and improvements, attracting businesses to the vacant store fronts and mitigating the high crime. Notably, Saint-Joseph Street East, once an enclosed shopping mall notorious for drugs and prostitution, was converted into a vibrant, outdoor thoroughfare.
“When I was growing up,” Ms. Gilbert says, “this was the place you wanted to avoid.” By 2006, Canadian Architect magazine describe the revitalization as “a model mix of political will and interest from the public and private sector.” Saint-Roch is now bursting with trendy restaurants, food shops, boutiques and tech startups.
It was here that Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Guénin came across a holdover from the past: a tumble-down tenement that was large enough to accommodate their family (garage, backyard and all). The place had a colourful history. At one point, it was housing for nuns that Mother Teresa visited when she came to Canada in 1986. But by the time the couple saw it, it was a mess.
“The house was, in fact, on the inside, one of the weirdest places I have seen in my life,” says Marianne Charbonneau, a principal at Hatem+D, the ambitious, energetic architecture firm that Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Guénin engaged to renovate. “It was an old rooming house of very small rooms, covered in worn carpets, filled with strange odours and bad choice of lighting. It was not very well-kept.”
Because of this, before the couple bought it, they were careful to calculate whether the 2,400-square-foot space could accommodate their wish list. “Henri looked at every centimetre,” Ms. Gilbert says. They also made a condition of the sale that the city would allow them to renovate as desired.
When the municipality agreed, Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Guénin, with Hatem+D, decided to proceed. “Our clients certainly had a good ability to envision what it could become,” Ms. Charbonneau says. “It took a bit of faith!” That faith, however, paid off.
From the front, Hatem+D kept the centuries-old character of the narrow, brick-lined street intact (save for replacing the windows and repainting the once putrid yellow trim a sharp black). That’s where the historical preservation ends, though.
At the back, the architects have built a striking if simple addition. Jutting into a grassy expanse is a boxy protrusion clad in charred cedar, a Japanese technique that requires minimal maintenance (“it should last for 80 years,” Ms. Gilbert says).
Inside, the ground floor that was chopped into a warren of sad room is now bright and capacious. The kitchen, dining, living and family areas all blend into one big space. Although the aesthetic is minimalist, it’s all also highly functional: a series of concealed panels under the stairs hide, among other things, a powder room and storage closets.
“It’s nice because I can be cooking in the kitchen, but still participate in the conversation with everyone,” Mr. Guénin says. “We didn’t want the rooms broken up by lots of walls or stairs,” Ms. Gilbert says. “We didn’t want to have to yell, ‘It’s time to eat!’”
On the second level, not only did the couple get their five bedrooms, but an additional music room/play area that opens up off the hallway (or, with a series of sliding panels, can be closed if someone wants to wail on the piano. “We all try to play a little,” Ms. Gilbert says). The bedrooms aren’t overlarge (save for the spacious master, which juts into the upper level of the addition), but having a unique space for each family member was important.
“When possible, as a blended family, it’s very important that everyone has their own areas,” Mr. Guénin says. “We wanted the space to be together, but we also wanted everyone to have their own privacy.”
The house itself, despite being walking distance to the tourist-filled old town, feels incredibly private. At the front, it abuts the street with no buffer like a lawn or garden (“last winter was the best in my life,” Ms. Gilbert says. “I didn’t have to shovel anything”). But the backyard, onto which Hatem+D installed large picture windows, is ensconced in the neighbourhood’s mature trees.
“It’s amazingly green,” Ms. Gilbert says. “And there is so little noise back here. It’s surprising, but it’s quieter here than when I go to my mom or my sister.” And where would that be? “They live in the suburbs,” Ms. Gilbert says.
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