In the dining room of Jason Bykewich’s childhood home, his parents had a black-and-red candelabra with a fiddlehead shape. As a baby, he was drawn to this fixture. When his father carried him past it, he’d grasp at it. “I wanted to touch it and see it up close,” he says. He was similarly transfixed by the ornate balusters beneath the armrests of the living-room couch. He’s disinclined to read too much into these childhood fascinations. Clearly, even then, he liked irregular shapes. Perhaps it was their distinctiveness that appealed to him. Or their resemblances to natural forms – snail shells, tendrils, Aloe plants.
As an adult, Mr. Bykewich developed an interest in Art Nouveau – the decorative-arts craze that flourished in Europe and the British Isles from 1890 to 1910. The Nouveau movement – with its sinuous, elongated and asymmetrical forms – took inspiration from wild nature. It was a folksy alternative to the neoclassical style, which was all about symmetry and grandeur and had dominated for much of the previous two centuries.
When Mr. Bykewich and his wife, Geneviève, a journalist, acquired a $405,000 property in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood, he saw a chance not only to build a forever home for his family (the couple has two young boys) but also to experiment with curvilinear shapes, the kind you don’t often see on the Prairies. As the principal of Ethos Engineering, a local consulting firm, Mr. Bykewich possessed the expertise necessary to pull such a project off. And while the house is by no means an exemplar of Art Nouveau design – it feels, with its heavy timber, rough finishes and rugged masonry, very much like a Prairie home – it nevertheless draws loosely on Nouveau principles. It is an assemblage of irregular, curvy forms in a city where such things are rare.
If, in Edmonton and elsewhere, homebuilders tend to prefer angular over curved structures, it’s partly because these are the easiest forms to create. Lumber comes in planks. Bricks and cinderblocks are rectangular. To arrange or stack these materials in the most sensible way is to build a house that looks, well, like a house – a boxy structure, perhaps with a gabled or hipped roof. Sure, you’re free to bend the walls or sculpt the rooms if you want to, but this takes effort, time and engineering savvy.
On the other hand, when else was Mr. Bykewich going to get such a chance? “This was the first project in my career where I had a blank page,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I want to realize some of the crazy ideas that have been floating around in my head, what would that look like?’ It’s not very often that you get an opportunity to build something from scratch.”
Using Autodesk Revit, a 3-D-modelling application, he designed a two-storey, 1,950-square-foot home with a rounded front façade, a terraced second-floor balcony, and two main spaces – a kitchen-dining area with concrete floors on the ground level and a living room with maple floors above – both with irregular shapes. (The more conventionally shaped master bedroom is tucked behind the upstairs living room, and the children’s bedrooms are in the basement, overlooking a lightwell.)
To produce curved walls, a builder must find ways to make rounded forms out of rectangular materials. Using a jigsaw, Mr. Bykewich cut sinuous, parabolic strips of plywood. These pieces served as the bottom plates for the walls. He mounted vertical studs on top of them and then wrapped the drywall, which had been watered down to increase malleability, around the studs so that it mimicked the curvilinear shapes of the underlying plates.
The walls aren’t the only distinctive feature in the home. Mr. Bykewich had all of the front-facing windows custom fabricated; like the rooms, they are more pond-shaped than circular. The exposed beams on the ground floor are arranged in a tree-like pattern. Thick spans of Douglas-fir glulam, an engineered wood product, extrude diagonally from a central concrete column. These pieces then bifurcate and give way to lighter beams, just as a bough gives way to branches and twigs.
The best element in the house is the first one you see. In the foyer, a few feet past the entrance, Mr. Bykewich set a five-foot-high trombe wall – a masonry structure that absorbs solar energy streaming in through the windows, thereby cooling the interiors by day. It is clad in a mixture of found stones and salvaged bricks, all set in a “free lay” pattern: the rows bend and turn randomly, as if drawn by hand. “The wall looks geological,” Mr. Bykewich says, “like a natural deposition.”
These unique flourishes belie the technical sophistication of the home, which is outfitted with thick exterior walls, an energy-recovery ventilator and a hydronic heating system, whereby water is pumped though a network of tubes beneath the floors. Unlike a conventional radiator, which blasts heat from a fixed point, this system runs everywhere and therefore heats the home with minimal energy inputs. To get a room up to a comfortable 20 C, you must heat the water to a mere 22 C. Because he put in much of his own labour, Mr. Bykewich kept construction-and-material costs down to $475,000, and he expects to save on energy expenditures as the years go by.
For such an experimental project, there’s a strong element of Prairie pragmatism at play. The house has little of the delicacy one associates with Art Nouveau. But that’s not the point. Imagine an alternative universe in which elements of Nouveau had somehow migrated to the Prairies and become enmeshed, however vaguely, in the local building vernacular. Mr. Bykewich’s house exists in such a world. When discussing his stylistic choices, he speaks not in the manner of an effete craftsman but rather like a pioneer homesteader. “This is our piece of land,” he says. “We can do whatever we want with it.”
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