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the architourist

Both overhangs at the front of Diane McDonald's house have green roofs.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

What do rift cut doors, green roofs, curved walls, skylights and sidelights and natural materials such as Eramosa limestone all have in common?

Nothing, really, until you put them together.

“I wanted a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” begins Diane McDonald, a fiftysomething mother of two who had done two renovations with architect Heather Dubbeldam, but never a full house. “Then, from that, she got the sense that I wanted that connectivity [to nature]; I didn’t know that, but she did.”

“It’s more like your clients tell you a whole bunch of things,” the affable Ms. Dubbeldam says. “They don’t always know exactly what they want, but you’re able to fit them into a whole process.”

The design was guided by 'biophilic' principles – the goal being to incorporate as much of the natural world as possible.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

That process wasn’t to copy Wright, by the way – that would be both too easy and prohibitively expensive. Rather, Ms. Dubbeldam and her team applied the principles of “biophilic design” to the creation of Diane and Greg McDonald’s Bennington Heights home.

Simply put, biophilic design strives to tap into our subconscious desire for nature by incorporating direct examples – light, air, fire, water, plant materials – and indirect examples – photographic images, natural textures, colours and shapes – right into the building itself. Humans have been doing this for millennia, of course (Wikipedia points to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon), but our increasingly unnatural world has given birth to a new generation of devotees. According to Architectural Digest’s Elizabeth Wallace, “wellness real estate was a [US]$134.3-billion market” in 2017, which translates into “significant new business opportunities for designers and architects.”

This trend, adds Ms. Dubbeldam, might also mean the end of the Mies-on-steroids box with a flat roof and so much glass there’s nowhere to place furniture. “That’s something that Greg and Diane said,” she remembers. “[Diane] said: ‘We don’t want a big window at the front of the house that goes down to the floor,’ and I said, ‘We don’t do that anyway.’”

The kitchen is partially enclosed to separate it from the main living space.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

Yes, the McDonald’s home is modern. It may even be considered big at 3,100 square feet. But even a passerby will notice that it’s different: The two overhangs – one over the hidden garage door and the other over the people door – both have green roofs; the column supporting them is eight-sided; Roman brick in warm buff and warm grey compliment acres of warm wood siding; Eramosa limestone lines the overflowing planter boxes; and the roof is not flat at all, but rather a gentle hip. In other words, the biophilia begins just beyond the sidewalk.

The home's rare floor-to-ceiling windows feature a rich mahogany trim.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

Step inside and more bio-feels hit one’s senses. Underfoot is a textured, dark grey limestone with hints of red. Look up and natural light rains from a double-height space punctuated by triangular fixtures from Hollis + Morris. Let the eye travel along the swirly, golden-knotted robinia floor and it will pause at the oak-slatted fireplace (with tons of hidden storage), and then, likely, past that to a rare floor-to-ceiling window trimmed in rich mahogany. This window brings the backyard – with different varieties of vegetation that stay interesting all four seasons – right into the home.

That backyard, by the way, is slightly lower than the home’s floor, which allows one to gaze down upon the pool and fire pit; the ability to survey one’s domain from above, Ms. Dubbeldam says, is another characteristic of biophilia.

Biophilic principles guided the design of the backyard, which is lower than the home's main floor.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

Back inside, the staircase elevates itself from ordinary to extraordinary by simply adding two curves to the drywall, and then carrying them up to the balcony walls above, but adding the satisfying complexity of bending the wood cladding and adding a thick, curved handrail on top. To finish off this sculptural composition – crafted by stairmaster John Berman – treads have been left open and a window that looks into the home’s tucked-away study fills the area between the curves. At the top of the stair, the viewer is greeted with a glorious wall of cabinets clad in visually rich, rift-cut walnut.

The sculptural staircase was crafted by John Berman.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

Up here, peeks into bedrooms allow glimpses of wallpaper with a cloud theme, and another with cows (in the downstairs powder room there is mountain-themed wallpaper, and the tucked-away study sports tree wallpaper). While whimsical, even these nature-reminders add to the overall sense of calm, offers Ms. Dubbeldam: “You don’t have to stick a whole bunch of houseplants inside,” she says with a laugh.

The only room that might ruin all of this calm is in the home’s basement. However, since it was a homeowner requirement, the thick plastic coated walls, concrete floors, and window-grill make this area perfect for practicing a slap shot. And, indeed, the hundreds of puck-scars on the walls of the “hockey room” attest to its success. Down here, too, is a home gym, infrared sauna, family room, and, of course, the mechanical room with the geometric guts of the radiant floor system.

The result of the design is an elegant and light-filled family home.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

Back upstairs in the semi-enclosed kitchen – (“You’ve got to hide the mess,” Ms. Dubbeldam says) – Ms. McDonald gazes at the new snow cover around the pool and ruminates on the process of building a home.

“It was a journey and I had some bad ideas,” she says, reminding Ms. Dubbeldam she’d wanted a complex, totem-pole-like surround on the outside column but was talked into a simple octagon-shape instead. Whatever those other bad ideas were, they’re irrelevant now: Here, in this light-filled and elegant home, it’s clear that what surrounds the McDonald family – biophilic and otherwise – is the result of a healthy conversation between architect and a client … a conversation that didn’t concern itself with what feeds the home decor magazine machine.

“It’s not trendy, and I like it very much,” Ms. McDonald finishes.

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