A rundown house in Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal borough has been transformed into a light-filled minimalist work of art that makes plentiful use of that humble construction material – plywood.
Montreal architect Jean Verville and colleague Tania Paula Garza Rico collaborated closely with owners Benjamin Boller and Mathieu Denécheau in a striking redesign of the two-storey rowhouse. The result is what they describe as an artistic experiment; just about every interior surface besides the maple floors and kitchen and bathrooms is plywood, providing for a sense of uniformity and abstractness where space and light rule.
Entire sections of flooring on the second floor were removed to create double-height clearances in communal areas. However, there is also room for the delineation of cozier confines, without losing sight of the open-concept design. For instance, the kitchen – which separates the dining area from the living room – has partitions running along the counters but not so high as to make interaction with those in the other rooms impossible.
Throughout the house, natural light pours in from generous fenestration at both the front and back, bouncing off the plywood-clad cubes and surfaces.
“Our first priority was how to get the light to come through” in a building that was rather gloomy, said Mr. Boller. Also key was a rigorous assessment of how they wanted to live in the new space they were creating, he said.
Mr. Verville is known for working closely with his clients; he makes a point of having them intently scrutinize their habits and lifestyles to discover what it is they truly want and what they can leave behind.
The owners of this particular Verville project – it’s called Maison MB – agreed that they wanted to get away from a more traditional, walled-in design, without completely foregoing walls: three rooms on the top floor – an office, bedroom and den – are closed off.
“We had to make choices,” Mr. Boller said. The project, which stretched over a three-year period that included COVID-related delays, involved many sessions of brainstorming. “It was a long period of reflection,” he said.
Mr. Denécheau points out that there was a heightened sense of personal – not just financial – investment in the project. “We did a lot of the work ourselves. We were really implicated in the whole process.”
Mr. Boller concurs: “Pitching in was gratifying.”
The contractor, Le Pierre rénovation, and the tradespeople also got caught up in the challenge of bringing to life such an unusual plan, said Ms. Garza Rico. “The volume layout and proportions intrigued the builders.”
A staircase, open on one side, separates the living-room-kitchen section from a corridor that runs the length of the house; the corridor provides direct, easy access to both the front and back doors. The corridor floor is protected by a natural coconut-fibre carpet.
At the front end of the home, just off the entranceway, is an enclosed vestibule/closet.
In keeping with the consistency of the smooth plywood envelope throughout the structure, storage space and appliances like the washer-dryer and refrigerator are out of sight behind plywood-covered doors.
There is a conspicuous offset to all that wood treatment: The kitchen, bathroom and powder room are finished in all-white surfaces and equipped with white fixtures. This contrasting white palette evokes the white-painted brick of the house’s front façade.
The brick was originally painted black. “The idea was to lighten the look,” Ms. Garza Rico said.
There are a few other white accents in the house, such as the door handles, items of furniture and the picnic table in the dining room.
In a neat engineering trick, the upstairs bathroom is contained in a cube that is suspended over the space below. At the top of the stairs, the landing is positioned at a sort of crossroads of the different shapes and volumes. Standing there, it is as though one were nestled inside a massive sculpture.
The minimalist aesthetic is maintained with custom LED lighting laid out in thin recessed strips along the ceilings and some walls.
A standout aspect of the home’s interior is the variety of abstract visual points of view on offer, shifting as one moves about: The interlocking geometric shapes, the gaps where light – both artificial and natural – filters through, the negative and positive spaces.
Another quirky feature is the fenestration. Some of the windows are square, a notable departure from the traditional rectangular shape on houses in the neighbourhood. Also of note: The grilles in some of the windows are off-centre.
“We wanted to be true to the spirit of experimentation while at the same time ensuring we were within code,” Ms. Garza Rico said.
At the front, the large windows are intended to provide an openness onto the street. The dining room is directly positioned in full view of the street, while the more private living space is at the back, Mr. Boller said.
At the back, there are five huge windows and a glass door, making views of the garden an integral part of the living experience. The new owners kept the garage, located at the far end of the yard, but they plan to eventually get rid of the in-ground pool that also came with the purchase of the house.
The cabinetmaker who oversaw the installation of the plywood, Steve Tousignant of Ébénisterie CST, describes the work as akin to putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. Pieces were cut and varnished at the factory before being transported to the house and carefully adjusted and glued into place. The Russian birch plywood was imported directly from Russia in batches and the crew was lucky to get the order completely filled just in time before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent unavailability of that product, said Mr. Tousignant.