The irony of minimal design is that it often requires a maximal budget. Or, to bastardize a Dolly Parton quote: it costs a lot of money to look so spare. That’s because without traditional frills such as moldings and baseboards, the junctures of the various surfaces – floors and walls, walls and ceilings – are left exposed. And to adjoin the different, unadorned materials in an elegant, not messy way (rough plaster edges don’t look nice), it takes a lot of care and therefore money.
A new house, completed last year in the quaint Victorian town of Port Hope, Ont. is therefore an achievement. The outside has a crisp, crystalline form. The same minimalism carries through the 1,550-square-foot, single-storey interior. The bright white plaster walls gently kiss the burnished concrete floor; clean-lined strips of LEDs are surgically incised (free of visible hardware or casings) into the simple, though dramatically pitched ceiling. But the overall construction budget was $300,000, or $200 per square foot, which is modest by any standard – let alone for a custom, ground-up build with such a specific aesthetic.
According to homeowners Andrew and Janice Gregg, both retired teachers, a key reason they were able to pull off the project economically and effectively was because the building team – designer Simon Routh, who was raised in Port Hope, but now lives in Toronto, and local contractor Rick Lovekin – were long-time friends.
“We’re known them for more than 30 years each,” Mr. Gregg says. “We’ve known Simon since he was a bump in his mom’s belly. Rick did contracting work at my school. So because we were so familiar with each other, there was no awkwardness. It was possible for us to be really honest about what we wanted and how to get there.”
Having such a deep sense of trust between client, designer and contractor is critical, according to Mr. Routh. “Especially when you have unconventional ideas,” he says. And with this house, the “unconventional ideas” didn’t stop at minimal on a dime. The Greggs also asked for an environmentally friendly heating and cooling system. They wanted to forego mechanical air conditioning and a traditional, forced-air furnace. Instead, the idea was to rely solely on energy-efficient radiant floor heating in the winter and natural ventilation in the summer.
The solution was a collaboration. Mr. Lovekin came up with the idea to build the walls with insulated concrete forms – low-cost, modular building panels that quickly snap together and combine a high-degree of insulation and a poured concrete structure in one. “The walls have a great R [insulation] value,” says Mr. Routh, who laid out the plan with large windows at either end of the house to encourage natural ventilation.
“With the cross breeze, we don’t need an [air conditioning system],” Mr. Gregg says. “And the lack of blowing fans gives the place a beautiful calmness and quietude.”
To keep the overall costs contained, the team was judicious with where to save and where to splurge. “For the design, it was a question of looking at the budget, looking at the brief and figuring out the things that were essential to making the house special,” Mr. Routh says. “The kitchen has standard IKEA cabinetry with melamine counters and plywood gables. But having $60,000 Bulthaup cabinets wouldn’t have changed the project in any way. The stuff that makes the space interesting – the scissor-trusses in the gable roof, the big-ish glazing, some of the plaster details – mattered more. For everything else, we tried to come up with something subtle.”
Even some of the typically more expensive-looking details turned out to be cost effective. The inset LEDs in the ceiling are made from “repurposed drywall trim with off-the-shelf LED tape,” Mr. Routh says. “They ended up being about $20 a linear foot, which, compared to installing four or five pot lights, is still an economical way to do it.”
But all the economizing would have been pointless if the home, which replaced a dilapidated, smaller structure on the site, didn’t also provide the pleasant living experience that it does. Overall it feels airy and refined, almost like a contemporary art gallery or a really pretty library (prior to starting his own firm, Mr. Routh worked for RDH Architects, a firm noted for its innovative library projects). Which is fitting because, as teachers, Mrs. Gregg was a librarian and Mr. Gregg taught art.
In fact, Mr. Gregg is still a working artist, the importance of which is clear in the program of the house. A compact kitchen and living space anchors one end, whereas there is a large studio space on the other. A sense of separation between the relaxing and working zones is created by the placement of the master suite, guest bedroom and bathroom in-between (Mr. Gregg’s compositions add colour to the walls throughout).
Not that the home is solely set up for art making. Mrs. Gregg doesn’t paint, but still gets a lot of enjoyment out of the home’s dichotomy. The studio faces east and overlooks Port Hope’s Ganaraska River, whereas the living room faces west to a forested ravine. “I like to take my morning coffee in the studio room and see the sun rise,” she says. “In the evening, it’s lovely to have a glass of wine in the kitchen and watch the sun set. Each end has massive windows, light and nature. It’s so nice to have both experiences.”
The reason the Greggs’ wanted to build a fuss-free, compact house (moving from the larger place where they raised their kids) is because they spend part of the year in Melbourne, Australia. It’s where Mr. Gregg comes from originally, before emigrating to Canada. But as proof of the success of their new abode, Mr Gregg admits: “Melbourne is a great city. And we love to live in such a great city,” he says. “But we aren’t there, we miss the Port Hope place. It’s so warm and full of light. We love the perch on the river.”
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