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Rooms that breathe in a flood-damaged home

Renovation based on Japanese design creates flexible, contemporary space in the shell of a once-derelict 1950's bungalow

An early rendering of Breathe Box, a home on Garden Crescent in Elbow Park, southwest Calgary, renovated by local architecture firm Bioi Inc.

A flood-damaged home on Garden Crescent in Elbow Park, southwest Calgary, has been revived thanks to a Japanese-inspired architectural intervention.

Local architecture firm Bioi Inc. based the design on an oshiire, a traditional Japanese linen cabinet, that helps transform a room from one purpose to another. Bioi's design allows the homeowners to live in a flexible and contemporary space, inside the shell of what was, until recently, a derelict bungalow.

"This started out as a different project altogether," admits architect Jordan Allen. "The client actually commissioned us to do a knock-down, and build them a contemporary concrete and glass home. But fate intervened and things went in a different but very exciting direction."

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Bioi's client, Graham Heath, bought the one-bedroom 1950s bungalow with a 1980s rear extension in July 2014. Mr. Heath had looked at property on Garden Crescent as far back as 2002 but, after hesitating on a previous purchase, he would found himself "priced off the street."

The bungalow was damaged in the 2013 floods. ‘I basically got it for land value,’ owner Graham Heath says.

"I've always wanted to live here so when I saw this little grandma house for sale I had to take a look," he says. "It was pretty badly damaged from the floods in 2013 and had been empty since then; the entire basement flooded right up to a couple of feet into the main floor. I basically got it for land value."

Mr. Heath and his partner, Kathy Medina, appointed Bioi to design and build a contemporary home for the site but, as construction approached and the provincial economy continued to tumble, Mr. Heath decided the timing of the project was wrong and proposed a different way forward.

"Graham and Kathy challenged us to use the existing house to create a temporary intervention that would last around five years, allowing them to move in, with the idea that we'd eventually knock it down and build the house we'd planned a few years down the road."

Heath’s partner’s sons live with them part-time, so the house needed to work alternately for a couple and a family of four.

Mr. Allen and his team were given "creative carte blanche" by their clients, who only specified that the space should have the feel of a Nordic cabin and that it should work alternately as a home for an urban couple and for a family of four to accommodate Ms. Medina's teenage sons who live with the couple part-time.

"Because we're dealing with a small, older home, we decided to look at ways of inserting a contemporary piece into the centre of the house and allowing the original home to exist around that," says Mr. Allen. "We looked at the house as a machine for living with the interior serving as the mechanics."

That final solution Bioi presented to their client was based on the inner workings of a traditional Japanese home where rooms are transformed to perform a variety of functions with the use of an oshiire: a cabinet that houses all of the necessary elements to "activate" a room to serve as a bedroom, study, shrine or fulfill any number of other functions.

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"We started looking at how we could scale that functionality up so that the cabinet would house the entire operation of the house," Mr. Allen says.

It was a concept that Mr. Heath found "radical and very exciting, really it was exactly what we were looking for." And so, Bioi embarked on "the most unusual architectural renovation we've ever undertaken." The call it the Breathe Box.

The central, 50-foot-long cabinet has eight-foot-wide doors that can be opened to form ‘rooms’ including a study.

"We demolished all of the interior walls, leaving just the outside shell: the peel of the orange if you will. Then, we remediated the mould growing in the basement and reinsulated and refinished the interior walls," Mr. Allen explains. "The exterior was updated by replacing the old style bow window and revising the sideways front entry with a glazed entry. We also gave it a lick of black paint."

While the exterior received only cosmetic alterations, the internal structure underwent a full mechanical upgrade. That included the installation of a central cabinet that is 50 feet long by 5-1/2 feet wide. Made of fir plywood, the cabinet has eight-foot-wide doors that can be opened to form the "rooms," including washrooms, kitchen, a study, two bedrooms and closets.

"We called it the Breathe Box because it expands and contracts depending on the context of life that's around or within it," says Mr. Allen. "You expand small pieces of this cabinet to transform a room. You expose a full bedroom with a king size bed or a beautiful stone bathroom with a shower and bathtub or a guest room with compact bunk-beds. So it can be as closed and as inoperable as possible or as open as expanded as it needs to be."

"Graham and Kathy have a great art collection so there's an added bonus of having the perimeter walls of the home unobstructed when the cabinet is closed, like a gallery wall," he adds.

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The Breathe Box was initially intended to be a temporary design, but owners Heath and Medina decided to stick with it long-term after seeing Bioi’s ‘incredible’ work.

Then, as Mr. Allen and his team progressed with preparation work, Mr. Heath and Ms. Medina had a change of heart: The design was just too good to be temporary.

"I realized that this little house was part of what I loved about this street," Mr. Heath says, "and what Bioi were creating inside that house was really incredible. It's something different that allows us to live in an interesting way. It was exactly what we wanted."

Moving their concept from a five-year vision to a long-term one required further changes to the plan.

"There are additional challenges that come with changing a project from something that's temporary to something that's permanent," explains Mr. Allen. "If you design something specifically to look good for five years, it probably won't in 25 years. Materially, we switched things like plywood for stone and tile to sheets of marble; conceptually, we pulled a little bit of the cabin out of it and injected a bit more of the city home."

He continues: "The biggest change was the engineering of the cabinet doors, which are moved in and out of place to create and open up rooms. We originally designed that as an entirely timber system, which we figured would fail in about five years time. Once we shifted to a longer-term vision, we moved to steel mechanics for those moving parts."

‘This house is like a Tetris puzzle,’ architect Jordan Allen says.

Mr. Allen says the cabinet doors and the moving parts of the home have been the most complex part of the project.

"It took months to design and implement these huge customized steel frame doors that can swing open and also slide back into the cabinet itself. It's a really complex structural solution: they're eight-feet wide and span the entire ceiling height with these massive handles that allow you to essentially peel a wall off the cabinet. Fully open, they seal off a room allowing you to sculpt pieces of space as you use the house. They also behave as regular doors allowing you to move through the house. You can keep the perimeter of the home open or you can close off space completely for privacy."

"This house is like a Tetris puzzle," Mr. Heath admits. "It's very complex and yet also very simple, which is why we love it."

As the Breathe Box approaches completion, Mr. Allen is already reflecting on its legacy.

"This design will only exist once but it will certainly influence other projects. Houses are more malleable than we think and while our first instinct might be to start fresh when we're faced with something that at first appears sloppy or falling apart, there are other solutions which can help maintain a street edge that's proportional and contextual," he says.

"I've been surprised and appreciative of how we've maintained the scale and texture and quality of the original home here. It feels like by considering what could be, we eventually got to see what should be."

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