Nancy-Marie Bélanger and Hugo Didier, a young couple living in Montreal’s trendy Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie borough, jumped at the chance to build their dream home when a commercial garage on a nearby lot went up for sale four years ago.
Once the old auto repair shop was knocked down and the soil decontaminated, the way was clear to transform into reality their vision of the ideal domestic haven.
They entered into a close creative collaboration with Montreal architect and friend Jean Verville, adopting a playful, exploratory approach, with frequent brainstorming sessions over how to create the abode of true contentment and serenity.
“I wouldn’t have done it with anyone but him,” said Ms. Bélanger, an interior designer who at one time worked in Mr. Verville’s studio.
“It was a process where we had to let go, asking questions about how we wanted to live,” Mr. Didier said. “Our goal was to re-examine what it is that we need and don’t need, ”Mr. Didier, a ceramic artist, said.
The result is an idiosyncratic building that – in the words of Mr. Verville, who is also a professor at Université Laval – “offers spatial investigations reshaping the typology of the Montreal triplex.”
Compactness, intimacy, efficient use of space, lots of natural light and a notable lack of clutter or ornamentation are the keynotes. Rather than opting for the standard three apartments stacked horizontally on top of the other over three storeys, the plan was to go vertical.
The 1,550-square-foot family residence where the couple and their three-year-old son Jules live distributes the living quarters – as well as Mr. Didier’s pottery studio – over four levels. A white, metal staircase similar to Montreal’s ubiquitous outdoor backstairs connects the floors.
Natural light floods in through the generous fenestration and rooftop skylights. One of the skylights pops open to provide access to the rooftop garden. All of this happens at the back of the white-brick and brass-trim building, with its striking array of asymmetrically placed windows of various dimensions. The front half is occupied by two rental units: a two-bedroom with a terrace garden, over three storeys; and a one-bedroom studio apartment on two levels.
The entrance to the family unit is actually at the front; a long corridor leads to an open kitchen/dining room space highlighted by a large set of four adjacent framed windows looking out onto the backyard. There is starkness and simplicity of design – a rough-edged quality – in the mix of polished concrete floor, white walls and glued-laminated industrial timber ceiling joists. But the space radiates a feeling of warmth nonetheless. As for the actual source of warmth: the 2½-inch-thick concrete floors throughout the home are electrically heated.
The kitchen is a low-key departure from the usual sleek, lavishly appointed showcase so often de rigueur in designer homes. Solid maple countertops are fitted over open, workshop-style storage space and drawers. There has been no effort to dissimulate the plumbing beneath the sink. In the corner is a small cruciform window.
Elsewhere in the house, another example of exposed HVAC and plumbing components: ventilation ducts that are in full view between ceiling joists. The water pipes beneath the washbasins – handmade by Mr. Didier – in the bathroom and washrooms are also exposed.
Up one floor are the living room and a home office/guest room. The bedrooms, on the top floor, are tiny; Jules’ room offers just enough clearance to allow for walking around the bed.
The bathroom was split into three separate enclosures: a bath/shower room, a toilet and a washroom/vanity.
As for closet space: there is just one large walk-in for the entire family that also serves as the laundry room, with a washer/dryer unit at the far end.
Mr. Verville says one inspiration for the design of the house is the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, with its emphasis on the merits of the ordinary, the unfinished, the imperfect.
“We wanted to prioritize spatial quality rather than decoration,” he said. “It’s a highlighting of the ordinary.”
A standout feature is the quirky placement and variety in shape and size of the windows.
“We made a list of all the different types and shapes of windows on the street and put a bit of al of them in the house,” Mr. Didier said. As a general rule, smaller windows were matched with the bedrooms and the larger fenestration was reserved for the larger rooms.
Ms. Bélanger says a key objective while pulling together the main elements of the project was ensuring the rental units got the same treatment as the main residence. No skimping by using Formica countertops or cheaper flooring. “We met with five different contractors. The reaction among some of them was to not put in a heated floor or all-wood kitchen. We didn’t listen,” she said.
The couple were also careful to make sure the bedrooms in the rental units were placed such that their occupants didn’t have the tenant in the other apartment walking over their heads.
Another important aspect: sourcing, as much as possible, from local crafts people and producers. The energy-efficient windows, for example, are by Terrebonne, Que.-based Fabelta, while the wood countertop and storage units in the kitchen are by Ébénisterie CST Enr. of Montreal.
The couple did a lot of the interior finishing on their own.
The architect and his two partner clients are more than pleased with the final, quirky result of their efforts. And the process that took them there.
“Everybody feels more implicated within the context of a playful approach,” Mr. Verville said. “This sense of participating in a game frees up a certain naiveté and leads to stimulating exchanges.” Being open and receptive to unconventional ideas, making room for the unpredictable, were central to the project’s success, he said.