Something old, something new

When architects Mary Jo Hind and Fred Vermeulen decided to seek out a weekend retreat from their busy office – both work for the international design giant Perkins+Will – the Hamilton-area couple hoped to discover a spread graced with a rambling old barn they could make over into a home. One didn’t turn up. What they did locate, however, was a patch of rough, scenic terrain in southern Ontario’s Mulmur Township, and, in Mennonite country near Cambridge, a freshly demolished two-storey gristmill from around 1850.

Putting their two finds together, Hind and Vermeulen hauled the ponderous timber frame of the mill to the site they’d purchased in Mulmur, and then reassembled it. Next, they roofed the wooden skeleton and put up a few simple interior walls in the double-height volume, wisely leaving the mill’s gouged, battered beams, pillars and struts exposed and unbeautified. The exterior is faced with rough-cut barn boards. The result of these moves is a sturdy, lofty 2,400-square-foot block book-ended by two massive chimney stacks.

But if its very plain mid-Victorian framework, wood wrapping and pitched roof help root the house in its rural surroundings, the finishes and innards are entirely contemporary. The open-plan ground floor, for example, is encased in tall glass walls that enable strong visual links between the interior and the rugged outdoors. Then there’s the very large, modern kitchen – clearly the spiritual and social centre of the house.

From the outset, Hind and Vermeulen knew the kitchen would have to be both a model of high efficiency and a generous gathering place for their family and numerous friends – a zone of creative cooking very close to the Ontario nature beyond the windows, and without anything that might obstruct the views. So they first worked out a general scheme, then recruited Richard Keyes, a designer with Toronto’s Bulthaup studio, to help put meat on the bones of their plan.

Instead of grouping elements around a central focus, in the usual manner, the planners of this Bulthaup b3 kitchen have distributed the areas of storage, food preparation, cooking and washing-up across four large, long units laid out parallel to one another. The Liebherr refrigerator, the Miele ovens and the pantry occupy a tall, suspended cabinet at one end of the rectangular room. Next comes a freestanding island equipped with a Gaggenau cooktop, and then another island (with a sink), suitable for chopping, mixing and so forth. Finally – farthest, that is, from the fridge and ovens – is a cabinet containing the Miele dishwasher and featuring a sink for cleaning delicate items.

This breadth of the space and the unusual arrangement of deluxe components in rows or ranks give the room something of an institutional atmosphere, akin to what one would expect to find in the kitchen of a busy restaurant in an upscale, downtown hotel. Hind and Vermeulen like to entertain large groups of people, however, so the kitchen’s spacious size and its allocation of functions to strongly differentiated areas make sense.

Too, the separations between islands and cabinets, and between the units and the exterior glass walls, are broad, inviting an open flow and circulation of traffic. This kitchen is not just about preparing good food, in other words. It’s also about the celebration of kinship and friendship, and the creation of a precious commodity: communal space.

During the work-week, Mary Jo Hind and Fred Vermeulen handle portfolios that include large health-care facilities – cancer treatment centres, for example – that nobody (except a design critic) wants to see the inside of. But exactly because such places can be ominous, making them demands from designers a special flair for clear, welcoming spatial flow, appealing surface treatments, and the shaping of bright, modern interiors and exteriors entirely free of the bureaucratic dumpiness common in hospitals from yesteryear.

Hind and Vermeulen have this artistic flair, and they have impressed it on numerous public-service projects, as well as their Mulmur Township house. Of course, architects need not design hospitals in order to learn the ins and outs of opening up a dwelling to sunshine and fresh air. But doing so might be good practice for residential designers, if what we want are more humane houses that work as well as this one.  cI