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the architourist

Architect Paul Backewich was inspired by a birdhouse when designing his getaway – no fuss, nothing unnecessary and each architectural angle or line lands exactly where it belongs.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Before I’d even rubbed the sleep away, a pair of brilliant blue jays flitting about caught my eye. Within seconds, a third joined them at the feeder and the trio enjoyed breakfast together. Seconds later, robed and slightly more awake, I padded softly into the screened porch to watch a flock of red-winged blackbirds swoop from one tree to the other.

You’ve got to love a place that lives up to its name.

“Tons of birds, all kinds of birds,” says architect Paul Backewich of the Birdhouse, a four-season getaway he designed for himself and partner, Sabina Latendorf. “There are quails around there – you don’t see quails often – wild turkeys, blue jays galore.” Mr. Backewich also admits that, when the house was completed just this past May, the two thought the house looked like “a little kit birdhouse that you build.”

It’s true: Birdhouses do have a certain economy of line, materials and massing. One would be hard pressed to find one with a turret, quoins or corbels. And Mr. Backewich’s people-sized birdhouse is much the same – no fuss, nothing unnecessary and each architectural angle or line lands exactly where it belongs.

Then again, Mr. Backewich is a master sketcher; I know this because he often posts “the lines I draw” on Facebook. Whether just quick doodles or a little more detailed, his lines communicate so much with so little information; a quick glance and one knows instantly he’s depicting a beach, or a street scene, or a skyscraper. And the Birdhouse, in the 22 hours I enjoyed there, communicated quite a lot with just as little effort.

Drive the twisty roads near Madoc, Ont., to get there, and one is instantly aware of the interplay of Precambrian rock thrusting up through soft soil and the juxtaposition of the area’s many deep lakes, some green and swampy, others crystal clear. Reach the house, and one notes how the wide front stair kisses an outcrop of that same pinkish rock. And how the house floats, just a little, over top of that rock so as not to disturb it. Walk around the back, and the house sails almost six feet over that big chunk of Canadian Shield. This, says Mr. Backewich, was partly so as not to dynamite the poor thing to create a basement, but also for the view.

  • The Birdhouse, a four-season getaway designed by architect Paul Backewich for himself and partner Sabina Latendorf. Side rear elevation.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

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“We just thought let’s just start with a point where we could start to build and then go straight out,” he says, noting that he’d penned about 20 designs before setting on this one. “Let’s stay at the height of the rock where the front steps are. … It just seemed to be a natural way to do it.”

Walk up those front steps, shelter under the practical, economical (and beautiful) shed roof, and pause to admire the Shou Sugi Ban siding before opening the front door. This charred timber siding, for the uninitiated, offers a barrier to insects, is low-maintenance, and will last for decades. Open the door, and if one can resist the pull of the beaver pond in the north windows, one can swivel to the right to take in the galley kitchen, just big enough for a couple to work together – the retro-styled Unique gas range is a nice touch – or, to the left, admire how the principal bedroom’s window perfectly frames a tree.

Walk further into the 863-square-foot house and marvel how, even with such a tight floor plan, there are still surprises, such as a wet bar area along an angled wall and a cozy TV nook and a relatively generous guest room around a corner. Step into the aforementioned screened porch, and one realizes the property ends at a sheer cliff and the beaver pond sits 30 feet below. It’s quite something.

It’s a view Mr. Backewich wondered if he’d ever get to enjoy. In early 2020, he and Ms. Latendorf set off from their east-end Toronto home to begin searching for a property near Peterborough, Ont. When that didn’t pan out, they drove further east along Hwy 7, checking sites near Norwood and Havelock. One site was beautiful but so steep it would’ve “cost a fortune to build a driveway and a funicular was out of the question,” the University of Waterloo graduate says with a laugh. Finally, venturing further than they’d imagined, they secured the 0.7 hectare site for $40,000 and then spent 10 times that constructing the house (intellectual labour, of course, was free). They’d intended on building a tiny house for a lot less money, but Hastings Township has a minimum size requirement of 700 square feet. So, after an initial panic, the couple “set about designing a place that gave us all we wanted and that was as close [to that] as possible.”

And because Mr. Backewich has had the benefit of working at some very celebrated Toronto firms over the past three decades, the Birdhouse, in general, is a tight, ship’s cabin-type composition with no wasted space, good room sizes, and generous outdoor and semi-outdoor areas to stretch out and enjoy the view (or nap, which is what I did).

There are quirky things, too, such as a laundry room that one must enter from the outside. “When I do a residential building I try to reduce any circulation [space],” he says. “Circulation, I find, is such a waste of space, unless you really can’t get around it. … Why have [the laundry room] interrupt the living space?”

And speaking of living, the couple plans to eventually transition to life at the Birdhouse full time. And it’s not just because there’s good WiFi, either. … Someone has to keep all of those bird feeders topped up.

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