Fantasy Family House
Montreal architect Jean Verville took his cues from the close family that commissioned this Eastern Townships cottage to create a design that reflects, he says, “a new kind of living for a new kind of family – where the parents and kids are fused, much more than before.”
“Fahouse” stands for family house, and in his design Verville drew both on generalities about modern family life and the specific lives of these clients. But it could also mean fantasy house, since its cottagey, childlike features offer a wealth of small delights for those who will actually live there.
The barrier between communal and private space is minimized, using interior windows, cutaways and knee walls, connecting every space to every other. At the same time, woods and trees are visible from almost every vantage point – whether you are lying down or standing, toddler or grownup, playing or cooking or simply reading by the window in a patch of sun.
There’s a childlike literalness about the exterior profile, which consists of two A-shaped sections that evoke the tall conifers surrounding the property. The metaphor is strengthened by the use of black corrugated metal siding. “The siding is designed to integrate into the woods even in winter,” he explains. In summer, it blends into the shadows of the woods, while in winter, the home’s outline creates a dramatic silhouette, like tall spruce trees against the snow.
A poured concrete walkway follows the slope of the land down a flight of steps to a patio sheltered by a cantilevered overhang, under the larger of the two “trees.” Despite its size, this section seems to float over a wide expanse of window walls that wrap around the vertical part of two full sides of the cottage. The effect blurs the boundary between indoors and out, and provides a leafy backdrop to the living/dining/sitting area within.
Inside, the division between the two sections is loosely defined between communal spaces like the main floor family area, and what Verville whimsically refers to as the “perched” areas. Past the kitchen in the centre of the house (just as the kitchen is the central hub of many families, of course), and a closet and storage area painted primary-school red, semi-enclosed stairs lead to the bedroom areas on the second floor. The stairway railings echo the diagonals of the rooflines; they allow for safe passage for younger family members, while still permitting conversation, all the way to the top.
The toddlers’ perch features bunk beds under the eaves, with strategically placed windows for both upper and lower berths (or for taller or shorter vantage points). A further short flight leads to the parents’ own retreat, which Verville likens to a beehive, since it consist of several cells: bed and bath are almost the same size and placed side by side, with a single expanse of window wall conjoining both rooms equally.
The family bathroom offered another opportunity to eschew seriousness for a bit of kid-friendly design. A graphic pattern of white rectangular ceramic tiles and dark grout underscores the triangular (or as he explains, prismatic) shape of walls and peaked ceiling, perforated by another big skylight view of trees and sky.
The top floor of the main volume is a kids’ paradise, simply because it is largely unassigned. A big, open space under the rafters with windows on either end, it’s tailored to burning off youthful energy and simply letting imagination go. The ribbed roofline led Verville to characterize it as “the lair of the whale.”
With its unpretentious materials, ranging from corrugated metal and concrete outside to Baltic plywood and white (and red) painted drywall inside, the home is a playbox for both young and older folks, and a supporting player to the landscape around it. And even with these modest goals, it’s also a highly original work of architecture.
“For me, the process of creation was really connected to the family; meeting the parents and their children inspired me to make something personal, a picture of them. It’s a mix of classical architecture and playful design,” he says. “The assemblage of aesthetic, personal, emotional, figurative and architectural –it’s really a blend of all these things.”