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_naturehumaine brings loud colour to quiet living spaces

Designer Stéphane Rasselet uses a limited palette of materials, colours and textures in his bold, playful designs

The living space of _naturehumaine’s Canari House in Montreal.

Stéphane Rasselet is a big fan of Montreal's alleyways.

Many a dilapidated tin-covered shed or drooping balcony has gone by the wayside to make room for home extensions or additions in the back alleys of neighbourhoods such as the Plateau Mont-Royal and Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie.

This home on 8e Ave. in Rosemont, Que. features a bold 430-square-foot extension facing the rear alleyway.

Mr. Rasselet, the co-founder of architecture and design firm _naturehumaine, is among a group of innovative local architects who enjoy taking on the site-specific challenges of creating dramatic contemporary living spaces that spill over into the city's iconic back laneways.

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On a break from his work at his firm's offices on the third floor of an old industrial building on the fringes of Little Italy, Mr. Rasselet speaks of the fussiness of municipal bylaws regarding what you can and cannot do to the front of a house, in contrast to the more laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the back. "The possibility of doing something contemporary is at the back of the house," he says.

"I often tell young architects or architects who are starting out: 'Take a stroll in the alleys because that's where you'll see interesting things. That's where architects get the opportunity to express themselves the most. You'll see lots of surprises.'"

The Rosemont home's original beams were laid bare when a hole was cut into the roof for a skylight.

Among Rasselet's own attention-grabbing alleyway designs is _naturehumaine's single-family home on 8e Ave. in Rosemont, a two-storey whose front façade was left relatively intact while a bold 430-square-foot extension was added at the back. Bright yellow and green fibre-cement panels combine with angled patterns to create a playful but not overly invasive look.

Inside the completely renovated house, the stark layout is offset by accents of roughly textured wood, including original beams that were laid bare – and left intact in all their crooked glory – when a hole was cut into the roof for a skylight. Beneath the skylight, a glass-floored section of the hallway funnels daylight to the ground floor. The 2013 project is a stunning example of Rasselet's approach: a minimalist take that highlights two or three materials, colours or textures to add warmth while also finding ways to make the most of the limited space in many of his clients' boxy row houses.

La couleuvre’s black-metal-clad second floor is ornamented by an array of small windows.

There is an intriguing element of play to be seen in many of _naturehumaine's designs. The kid-friendly "La couleuvre" – or garden snake – house flaunts a stunning black-metal-clad second floor with a seemingly random array of small windows ornamenting it throughout. The snaking top level rests on a more conventional ground floor with cladding made up of bricks salvaged from the demolished garage. Inside, a bright-orange railing – with panels studded with round openings – leads up to the "kids' zone," which includes built-in furniture and bunk beds in the three bedrooms. The minimalist kitchen catches the eye with its bright-yellow cabinets.

La couleuvre’s minimalist kitchen sports eye-catching yellow cabinets.

"We often like to make a grand gesture at one specific spot and leave the rest rather neutral," says the 52-year-old Mr. Rasselet, who founded _naturehumaine in 2004 with partner Marc-André Plasse. Mr. Plasse left in 2013 and is now with the New York offices of Swedish firm Snohetta.

A black band runs through the heart of the award-winning Canari House.

The stairway of Canari House perfectly encapsulates _naturehumaine's design technique.

Nothing better captures _naturehumaine's quiet/loud technique than the dramatic stairway in 2016's prize-winning Canari House. It's a tour de force of sculptural yet functional design that also serves as the focal point of the interior, with its brash yellow-and-black colours and assertive diagonal lines. A black band also runs throughout the house and to the garden, helping define circulation.

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Mr. Rasselet's work – focused on the residential but not excluding institutional and retail commissions – are at some remove from the projects in the early days of his partnership with Mr. Plasse. They spent 24 hours living and praying with the Cistercian monks of Oka, Que., in 2004 as part of the research for their entry in an open competition to design a new abbey for the religious order. They didn't win, but were among the four finalists out of some 70 submissions.

Soon after, the partners were hired by Quebec funeral-home chain Alfred Dallaire to spearhead a shift to a more contemporary, informal design at two key Montreal locations. They started getting residential jobs and that niche "became a passion," Mr. Rasselet says.

The timing helped. Young families and professionals at the turn of the millennium were moving into working-class districts such as the Plateau and demand rose for young, up-and-coming architects with fresh design ideas, affordable fees and budgets that weren't sky-high.

Mr. Rasselet grew up in Saint-Lambert, on Montreal's South Shore. At the age of 14, he moved to Vancouver with his mother and stepfather after his parents separated. He became enamoured with architecture, his enthusiasm boosted by his arts-loving mother's interestin studying architecture at the University of British Columbia. He remembers how impressed he was with Arthur Erickson's iconic concrete-and-glass Museum of Anthropology, highlighting the art of the Northwest Coast First Nations people, on the UBC campus.

More family moves came: Toronto, where he went to high school; Rouyn-Noranda, about 630 kilometres northwest of Montreal, where his French-born dad taught cinema studies. He attended McGill University's School of Architecture, did an internship in Paris in the early nineties and worked on various projects upon his return to Montreal, including Dan Hanganu's landmark HEC Montreal business school.

Among architects and firms who have impressed Mr. Rasselet are Swiss architect and Pritzker prize-winner Peter Zumthor and Japanese outfit Atelier Bow-Wow. He appreciates Mr. Zumthor's "experiential" philosophy: the notion that the places we live and work in can have a profound influence on our daily experience. Bow-Wow he likes for the solutions it proposes for dense urban spaces.

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The name of Mr. Rasselet's firm – _naturehumaine – is meant as a reminder to be constantly aware of the impact that built space has on the human spirit. His firm is small – eight people – but he's comfortable with that modest size and wary of the idea of overseeing too big a shop, with all the attendant perils of losing control over projects on the go. "It's important for us to think about a project in an all-encompassing fashion, just as much inside as outside," he says.

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