To the LightHouse

After WWII, Ottawa seemed on the verge of embracing cutting-edge residential Modernism. In 1947, scientists at the National Research Council had already produced the world’s first one-piece plastic furniture from a single-injection mold. Just down Montreal Road, a group of engineers from the same institution, along with architect and artist friends, were building Fairhaven, a cooperative community of small, inexpensive but resolutely contemporary houses. Soon after, architect Jim Strutt, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and lifelong friend of Buckminster Fuller, would produce a line of dazzling houses, many combining acrobatic, hyperbolic, paraboloid roofs spiralling around totemic hearths. In the early 1960s, developer Bill Teron built Old Kanata — inspired by Helsinki’s now legendary suburb of Espoo. Designs inspired by Wright’s Usonion homes were not uncommon in other Ottawa suburban projects and one actual Usonian plan house exists in the city’s Rothwell Heights.

By the ’70s, despite Trudeau’s “social revolution” and the futurist promise of Expo 67, Ottawa’s flirtation with residential Modernism had largely dissipated, replaced by a faux brick and vinyl historicism that still holds sway in the city’s continually sprawling suburbs. With the recent resurgence of urban living, however, Modern designs are reappearing, wedged among the surviving pre-war dowagers of the city’s core. There’s a good chance one of these will have been designed by architect Andrew Reeves. A graduate of Carleton’s School of Architecture after a period at the technically oriented Lawrence College in Michigan, his collaborative LineBox Studio has a growing portfolio of houses in Ottawa and Toronto. While they vary in size from under 700 square feet to over 4,000, typically they are all spare, controlled assemblages of geometric volumes clad in metal, stucco and wood — enclosing open, flowing spaces arranged to tease in the fickle light of tight urban sites.

His LightHouse residence, with its uniform use of a flat Western cedar skin stained a mellow, honey tone to soften an almost severe geometry of distilled volumes, is no exception. But it also responds adroitly to both a quirky site and a relatively large urban family, including three teenagers. The 4,500-square-foot, three-storey “laneway” house sits tucked in on what was originally planned as a short cul-de-sac in the planned community of Lindenlea, adjacent to Ottawa’s old money community of Rockcliffe Village. Someone forgot to notice, however, that one side of the intended lane fell off as a 40-foot escarpment. Although largely left undeveloped, a modest community centre was built along with a parking lot adjacent to the existing residential street. A small, almost kidney-shaped development site emerged from a backyard severance that faced onto the original lane, now partially integrated into the parking lot.

The site presented Reeves with a number of challenges. Not only does the house confront the parking lot, its primary glazed facade looks due north in order to ensure privacy on the south side. At the same time, there were compensations. The old lane easement is now a small park, thus expanding the perceived size of the property; and the escarpment is thickly treed, providing a rare urban-forest experience for a family that had migrated from a rural residence.

Reeves’s design is based on a vertical stacking of both open and closed spaces, minimally detailed, that establish an ascending hierarchy of social and private spaces. At the same time, there is a high level of connectivity between the different levels. To obtain the desired square footage and provide comfortable but casual family-activity space, the house’s first storey sits on a raised basement level, boasting 10-foot ceilings. The latter has a polished concrete floor (all floors employ radiant heating) and high, horizontal and very large windows that flood the space with light, providing, says Reeves, a “unique worm’s-eye view of the urban forest.”

Above, the primary, not-quite-piano-nobile level is a series of platforms that pinwheel around a generous glass-enclosed shaft. This vertical connector rises from the basement all the way to the “treehouse” third storey that houses the parents’ private quarters. Spiralling through this shaft is a sculptural staircase of steel with maple treads.

A front main-entrance foyer sits below the living room and is partially screened by a two-way fireplace that offers a welcoming beacon of warmth to new arrivals on a cold night. A larger side entrance foyer with a limestone floor creates a generous “shedding” area for arriving kids before they climb the steps into the kitchen and expansive dining area overlooking the forest. The well-equipped Irpinia kitchen is sleek but neutral in tone and is spatially defined by a large granite-topped island with a lower, table-height extension for the kids to spread out homework or hang around talking about their school day. This area and the connected dining space are one step below the living room, so the house’s first level has its own multi-level topology. “The first floor,” says Reeves, “is a substantial space with largely unobstructed visual connections, but the different levels mediate its size and create distinct functional areas but without barriers.”

The moderately elevated living room is deserving of the term “great room,” with a double-height ceiling reaching 22 feet, which has been left uncluttered of all but recessed light fixtures. (The only expressed lighting on the first floor is a pair of large globes, by Dutch firm Moooi, which hang over an expansive dining table.) Designed for conversation, socializing and the display of art, the living room is free of television, banned to the basement level. Like most in the house, its walls are crisp white, offset with rich maple flooring. The room’s north corner is wrapped by a dominating floor-to-ceiling, commercial-grade window drawing in the trees and providing generous, cool washes of northern light. High on the west facade, three narrow slot windows add more sculpted light while keeping the parking lot out of sight. This dual objective of screening but adding light is also achieved at the lower entrance level by a large metal and glass front door treatment by Montreal’s Alumilex, employing etched glass panels.

The second storey has a sizable landing that wraps around the staircase shaft and serves the children’s rooms, a bathroom and a loft office overlooking the double-height living room. The top level — what Reeves calls the parents’ own boutique hotel — is intended as an adults’ retreat. While the bedroom is modest in size, this allows for a substantial open loft area for reading or as a quiet working space. From this latter area, sliding glass doors open onto a large roof terrace, stretching the full south/north axis of the house. The parent’s “treehouse” is completed by a bathroom spa, where toffee porcelain tile sets the room’s subtle colour shading.

Reeves’s LightHouse, despite its minimalist form, both stands out and fits into a neighbourhood best described as a mish-mash of eclectic residential styles. Its interior, however, creates no ambiguity, responding at all levels — pun intended — to an active family who want both space to connect and space to escape. CI