Residents of Montreal's hip, culturally diverse Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood have for years been upgrading and renovating its distinctive turn-of-the-century row houses, notable for their trademark winding outdoor staircases and red-brick façades. The borough enforces strict regulations aimed at maintaining the look and heritage aspect of the row housing.
But the odd opportunity arises – fire, a condemned building that must come down – to build something brand new from the ground up. Such instances offer the opportunity to add innovative design and eco-conscious architecture to the traditional mix while trying to blend in as much as possible with the built environment.
It's a process known as soft densification: new construction that tries to avoid a too-jarring disturbance of the existing streetscape.
La Géode is a premier example of the kind of smart urban infill projects occurring in the Plateau, Canada's most densely populated borough. The three-storey, five-unit building breaks with the traditional narrow shoebox or L-shaped structures of yore with an interior common courtyard, large windows letting in lots of natural light and state-of-the-art sustainable-development construction.
Located on busy de la Roche street in the heart of the Plateau, La Géode was built on a standard residential lot between a trendy cake shop on the corner and a low-rise apartment building. Montreal-based developer KnightsBridge acquired the land on which a condemned house sat for $405,000. Ground was broken in 2016. Total construction cost was $1.8-million.
A geode is a hollow rock containing crystals inside and the concept for the structure was meant to be a play on that, says KnightsBridge's resident urbanism expert Jean-Philippe Grenier. The modest streetside exterior, with sections of rough, textured brickwork, shelters the hidden jewel of a courtyard and its splashy two-tone aluminum tilework covering three walls.
"We wanted to split open the structure with a courtyard instead of building the traditional L or square shape. We wanted to be more audacious," Mr. Grenier said. "It's a little bit theatrical."
The streetside brown-brick façade has a section of openwork masonry providing a partial screen over the ground-floor window. The lattice effect is also used to add a sense of seclusion to the glass-fronted loggias – recessed balconies – above.
Height and alignment at ground level are in harmony with the neighbouring buildings.
The windows are oversized compared with the standard Plateau format. Visitors get a taste of what's to come as they enter the passageway decorated with the trademark grey and white tiles, to be seen at full effect once inside, in stark contrast to the sedate brown brick. The entrance is a nod to the old carriage entrances in some of Montreal's older neighbourhoods that once allowed for passage of a horse and carriage to the stable in the yard. Géode architect Jean-François St-Onge views the courtyard, with its Canada yew tree and minimalist landscaping, bicycle parking and exterior walkways, as "the heart of the project, an urban oasis."
The communal space is intended to encourage interaction and friendly relations among residents, said Mr. St-Onge, who founded Montreal firm ADHOC Architectes in 2014 with partner François Martineau. "The courtyard ties everything together and has a social function as well," he said.
La Géode's living spaces consist of three units in the front section and two in the back half. The building's rear section is very generously open to the back alley, a more intimate area than the street yet still a public space.
All residents have access to the rooftop terrace that overlooks the courtyard as well as offering space and water for gardening. Michel Daneau and his wife, Odette Bergeron, bought the two-bedroom, 956-square-foot ground floor condo at the rear for $485,000. They love their cozy terrace that opens directly onto the laneway. The couple moved into La Géode last year  from a house in the off-island suburb of St-Bruno and quickly made friends with some of their neighbours across the lane.
"There's a good mix of people here," said Mr. Daneau, a retired federal civil servant who sold one of the two family cars in light of the new neighbourhood's easy access to public transport and the Bixi public bicycle-sharing system.
In a quirky note, the ground-floor terrace has a metal-grating floor hung above a ventilation/light shaft that funnels natural light and air to the two basement bedrooms. The couple like to relax down below in a hammock strung across this more private space, which makes room for small garden plot.
Inside, there is radiant heating from the polished-concrete floors throughout the condo. Thermal insulation surpasses industry standards. Faucets have adjustable water flow. The patented CALI soundproofing system also goes well beyond industry norms.
La Géode is set to become the first multi-unit residential project in Canada to receive the prestigious LEED v4 Platinum imprimatur, the most rigorous level of certification under the LEED program.
Mr. Daneau and Ms. Bergeron were drawn to the project by several factors, including the LEED rating, innovative design, generous natural light and walking-distance proximity to shopping on busy Avenue Mont-Royal, public transit, restaurants and – not least – expansive green spaces such as Parc La Fontaine.
Mr. Daneau also likes the dramatic drop in the couple's heating bill since they moved from their energy-intensive suburban residence. "I just about fell off my chair," he said.
La Géode is already garnering attention and recognition. It was a finalist for the top prize in its category at this year's Quebec Order of Architects awards.
Mr. St-Onge says the major challenge in the conception and execution of La Géode was taking a sustainable, cost-conscious urban development approach that promotes urban densification without compromising on quality-of-life elements.
Key to the concept was the notion of providing residents with a strongly stated private, intimate space while also being receptive and open to the surroundings thanks to the large windows, spacious balconies in front and alleyway terrace at the back, Mr. St-Onge said.
"We didn't want to turn our back on the public spaces."
The central opening created by the inner courtyard allows for more natural light to reach the living spaces than would be the case with a traditional boxy design, he added.