If Calgary’s condo developments tend to be as conservative as a rack of navy blue suits, then the work of boutique building firm RNDSQR, co-run by husband-and-wife Alkarim and Majida Devani, is like the city’s quirky, bold pocket square. Their coming Grow project eschews the standard concrete-and-glass box for a series of wood-clad, ramp-topped units all covered with veggie and flower gardens.
The Devanis are no less experimental with their own homes. “We like to try things out on ourselves first,” said Ms. Devani, who earned a masters of architecture degree from the University of Calgary and worked for design star Karim Rashid before starting her own business. “We like to see how our ideas actually perform.”
Their sense of adventure is clear upon entering their recently completed place in the Bridgeland neighbourhood (“I love the area’s growing food scene, with places like the Blue Star Diner,” said Mr. Devani, explaining why they relocated from their previous neighbourhood of Marda Loop). Despite being on the first of three floors, beside the common wall of the semi-detached house, natural light floods the foyer, filtering from a skylight on the roof through what looks like a fishing net built into the floor above.
Sometimes, the light might be blocked, though, by a person (or four) lounging on the mesh. The couple and their kids (they have a seven-year-old and a newborn baby) love to huddle on the hammock, reading or messing around with toys. “Parents often put their kids in the basement to play,” Mr. Devani said. “We wanted our kids to be near us, so we thought, how did we incorporate that?” Fittingly, the net, which is made by Cirque du Soleil to carry 500 pounds a square inch, is also kitty corner to a piano for impromptu family jams.
Having fun with unconventional materials wasn’t confined to child-centric places. Beyond the entryway, the main floor is an open-concept, living, dining and kitchen area all built around a monolithic, 12-foot-long, single-pour concrete island. It gives the home a sharp, industrial edge – especially as it contrasts some of the more traditional finishes, such as the chevron-patterned oak floors – but was also a technical feat to pull off.
For the fabrication, Mr. and Ms. Devani collaborated with designer concrete company 2Stone, which has collaborated on RNDSQR projects in the past. 2Stone, however, had never done such a large, single-cast element before. “At first they said it couldn’t be done without making it in two pieces and having at least one seam,” Mr. Devani said. “We are unusual clients, though. We are willing to take the risk that it could all go awry. If something doesn’t turn out, then we’re okay living with the mistake. We are okay with the mistakes for ourselves, just not for our customers.”
At first, things did go awry. The island was extremely heavy, so it had to be craned in place. The first version 2Stone made didn’t crane well, though, and cracked on delivery. “That’s No. 2,” Mr. Devani said of the island currently in place before adding that the trial and error was well worth it, given the results. “To me, it’s the coolest part of the house,” he said.
A similarly striking approach to finishes is taken throughout the house, often inspired by the couple’s travels abroad. Their ground-floor fireplace is wrapped in red, rusty Cor-Ten steel, which also clads part of the exterior. The rich, earthy palette reminds the Devanis of a recent trip to South America’s Atacama Desert, while the inside-outside continuity creates a sense of integrity between the architecture and the interior design.
Likewise, on the second storey (accessed via a jet-black staircase fashioned from paper thin planes of stained white oak), a mezzanine overlooking the main floor living room is lined with a slatted cedar screen, the kind they admired on a trip through Japan. “It smells incredible,” Ms. Devani said. “And it ages well. It doesn’t silver the way it does outside, because it’s not exposed to the wind and the rain.”
To the Devanis, experimenting with different textures and materials helps them understand how to add colour and liveliness to what would otherwise be minimal spaces. “Clean-lined design can resonate with any family,” said Ms. Devani, who notes that her ideal home involves having a versatile, timeless backdrop that can be layered with character. “Simple design can also have a lot of warmth,” she said.
The Devanis’ master suite, for example, sprawls out over the whole third floor, has the air of a zen spa, including an Arctic white colour scheme (except for the skylit walk-in closet – that’s light grey). It’s contrasted with more humorous, humane touches, though, like a 3-D patterned tile in the bathroom that looks like boxes popping off the wall.
Nailing that balance for their home helps them create spaces that others might want to live in as well, proving by example that contemporary design doesn’t have to mean austere and can, therefore, be a viable alternative to the ubiquitous, conservative approach.
Living in a space of their own also helps the Devanis think through some of the design issues faced by prospective clients. “We try to envision ourselves living in every single space that we build,” Mr. Devani said. “Because we want our homes to work well.”
“Yeah,” Ms. Devani added, “We’ve definitely lived in condos in the past, where you just say to yourself – why are things like this? Like, why isn’t there a light fixture in the bedroom?” By doing better for themselves, they’re hoping to find ways to do better by others.