It’s A Slice

Over the last two decades, there has been a contradictory trend in the dimensions of residential development in Canada. Suburbia, as if responding to the now frequently referenced expansion of the average citizen’s bulk, has celebrated housing of increasingly obese proportions. In contrast, urban housing on exponentially more expensive inner-city land has led to efforts to convince savvy urbanites that very compact, European proportioned units are quite livable.

Not uncommonly, developers claim 13 feet as the acceptable width for downtown townhouses. Although I agree with Montreal architect Raouf Boutros that an additional two feet makes for the optimal minimum, in the hands of a strong designer even much less can turn out to be much more. A remarkably successful case in point is the three-storey Lalancette-Ruel Residence on Saint-Vallier Ouest in Quebec City’s up-and-coming northeast lower town. A modest 1,114 square feet, its most startling characteristic is its extremely narrow width, which starts at a mere 10.3 feet on its street front and tapers over its 42-foot length to only 8.4 feet at the back. Despite its bowling alley dimensions, literally squeezed between two existing buildings, the residence achieves a spacious fluidity bathed in an abundance of natural light that defies its stingy square footage.

For its young architect owners, Annie Lalancette and Nelson Ruel, the idiosyncratic unit provided the ideal experimental subject. They wanted a residence within walking distance to their place of work, but in poor enough condition to be an affordable “laboratory” for their design ideas. That the property was as skinny as a test tube made even more seductive the challenge of creating an interior space that was rich in tone, highly textured and modern but respectful of surviving historical elements without being claustrophobic and inefficient. In turn, the building’s unique volumetric qualities and surviving architectural elements, coupled with a scale that permitted design – in Lalancette’s words – “interventions down to the tiniest detail,” made it not only doable, but possible at a cost within their budget.

The house started as a 1913 side addition to an exuberant Montreal-style stone townhouse, slipped into an access alley to the property’s backyard. A doctor’s surgery occupied the ground floor, with expanded living spaces above connected to the original house. Subsequently, however, this sliver add-on morphed into two separate apartments that degenerated, according to the architects, into “insalubrious” units. As a result, considerable effort was required to correct structural, service and building envelope issues as well as improve energy efficiency. Restoring and adapting both the front and back facades was also a given. From there Lalancette and Ruel could set about the daunting task of completely reorganizing the interior, both vertically and horizontally.

The house employs a piano noble approach, with an office, utility space and family room on the entry street level. The prime living area takes up the second level, with two bedrooms occupying the third floor. “Rigorous planning, to ensure that every square centimetre of its surface was put to good use, became the key to success,” says Lalancette. This was mediated by a desire to retain certain historical artifacts as well as “allowing natural light to penetrate at all levels despite the narrowness of the facades.” The key to achieving these objectives was to introduce an inventive vertical parti to the original three-storey interior. First, a stair centred in the mid-length of the unit rotates around a modest but important void between the second and third levels. As the staircase takes the full unit width to make the turn, the open-riser staircase forms a clear but not opaque separation between the living room in the front and the dining and kitchen areas toward the back.

Taking advantage of the original 13-foot height of the first floor, the architects dropped the floor in the back dining/ kitchen space a full three feet below that of the living room. This nifty little move produces a voluminous 10.5-foot-high dining and cooking space, while conversely enhancing the intimacy of the living room and its handsome bay window over the street. Not incidentally, it also ensures there is an immediate peek-aboo visual connection to the second level through the resulting ceiling gap when the house is entered or when working in the office. As Duo Dickinson demonstrated in The Small House (McGraw-Hill, 1986), such devices generate virtual spaciousness that is perceived rather than real. “We wanted to ensure greater volume for the main features,” continues Lalancette, “and make the spaces more dynamic through the creation of new perspectives among the various levels.”

Numerous other key devises are used to maximize both real and perceived space. On the ground floor, the office workspace employs a long, linear counter of translucent channelled plastic that hugs the wall, allowing a generous intervening space between this work surface and the flight of stairs to level two. Neatly tucked under the stairs are a compact washroom and storage spaces, clad in light-toned Russian cherry plywood. To the rear, the walls of the utility room stop short of the ceiling, a conceit that tricks the eye into perceiving a more expansive ceiling. The kitchen, in contrast to the texture and mottled colour of exposed brick walls, is slickly detailed in stainless steel and hardwareless cabinets. On the top bedroom level a generous module wardrobe (adapted from IKEA for flush hardware) and a full bathroom stretch along the circulation path, with the two bedrooms at either end. Sliding doors ensure a clean, rational look while maximizing space.

Light penetration has been achieved by carefully restoring – with contemporary details – the original ground-level surgery window that also wraps around the east corner of the front facade. Shutters with frosted glass blades offer privacy without blocking light. In addition to meticulously restoring the ornate bay window in the living room, a very generous new bay window was added at the back to draw in even more illumination. Finally, such components as the staircase void, the shift in floor levels and frosted Plexiglas doors on the bedrooms and bathroom – along with the absence of walls on the key piano noble level – not only support a “fluid perception of the entire space,” they contribute significantly to the diffusion of light.

While the unit is resolutely Modern in its language, key historical artifacts have been retained. On the ground floor, the ceiling caissons were restored to provide a strong geometric grid highlighted by indirect lighting. Perhaps the most daring restoration is in the living room above. Original Western Redcedar strapping, vertical on the walls but running the length of the ceiling, was removed, painstakingly stripped of eight coats of paint and meticulously re-installed. “The natural colour of the material gives the room its characteristic muted atmosphere,” says Lalancette. “Thus, the room seems to float like a wooden case between the brick walls, whose rough surfaces contrast with the refined nature of the space itself.”

The residence, winner of an Ordre des Architectes du Quebec’s Prix d’excellence 2006/2007, turns on its head the dictum that constricted space is best served by slick hyper-minimalism in varied shades of white. Instead, this very livable cocoon, rational in its functionality, is rich and textured in its colours, materials and multi-faceted volumes. cI