From California to Ottawa: Adapting Residential Mid-Century Modern Concepts
The story of Isabelle and Pietro Borracci’s new single-family residence project began approximately 15 years ago. Pietro Borracci bought an investment property in the Carlingwood West neighbourhood of Ottawa in 2004. In 2019, Isabelle and Pietro decided to build a new residence on the property, carefully designed and tailored to suit their family and lifestyle for decades to follow. The lot was large – 84 feet by 103 feet – and the existing house on the property, constructed back in the 1950s, had no significant architectural features and was to be demolished to make room for the new residence that would take better advantage of the lot size and site opportunities.
The houses in the immediate surroundings are primarily low-lying bungalows, clad in red and light-coloured brick, built during the mid-20th century era. To integrate with the existing streetscape character and setting, Isabelle and Pietro established a vision for their new residence to echo mid-century-modern architectural characteristics and vocabulary, while having a contemporary signature. After spending ample time exploring diverse examples of residential architecture from this era, they were particularly attracted to Californian west-coast housing designs. After narrowing down their inspiration, the owners were particularly attracted to designs by architect Rudolph A. Matern having an “adventurous approach.” Matern designed an elevated residence that provided a complete list of well-organized facilities for the full life and activities of the family. A prominent sky-well feature was located in the centre of the plan which allowed opportunities for most rooms to have inward facing fenestration, light and additional views to the exterior.
Once Isabelle and Pietro shortlisted must-have features to be incorporated into their new residence, followed by a series of thoughtful sketches to arrive to a preliminary floor design layout they were happy with, it was time for them to retain an architect to elaborate on their concept and bring it to life. Isabelle and Pietro set objectives for an architect who would take their initial ideas and sketches and carefully refine their functional program, while developing a distinctive personalized design for their new long-term home.
They selected Ottawa-based architect, Robert Martin, from Robertson Martin Architects (RMA). Robert was quite familiar with this mid-century-modern architectural style through his 25 years as a practicing architect, and also having a family relative that owns and lives in an Eichler House that embodies the mid-century modern architectural movement. Matern’s architectural style was associated with various design explorations in California during the mid-century, including Eichler Homes.
What is an Eichler Home?
From 1945-1966, Case Study Houses, sponsored by Arts and Architecture Magazine, commissioned prominent architects of the postwar period to experiment, design and build inexpensive and efficient model homes in California for the growing United States residential housing boom. Joseph Leopold Eichler (1900 – 1974) was inspired by living in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home as well as the proliferation of Modernist design ideas by the above group and their associates. He was a 20th-century post-war American real estate developer known for developing distinctive residential subdivisions of mid-century modern style tract housing. An Eichler Home is one of the 11,000 dwellings built by developer Eichler and his company between 1949 and 1966. Many consider Eichler Homes to have changed the face of modern architecture and interior design in California. Indeed, today they are known as quintessential examples of the mid-century-modern, or “California modern aesthetic.”
Architecturally speaking, a signature Eichler concept focuses on “bringing the outside in.” Accordingly, Eichler homes commonly feature a sky-well in the center of the house, floor-to-ceiling windows, skylights and transoms, complete with private outdoor rooms and patios. Eichler homes are also known for their flat or low-slung roofs and low horizontal forms.
Following on Isabelle and Pietro’s vision and initial sketches, Robert Martin and his colleague, Nicholas Breault, designed a one-storey house that borrowed, by analogy, the primary characteristics of an Eichler Home, while aiming to bring a revitalizing contemporary design sensibility into the neighbourhood.
Stemming from many design elements of Eichler Homes and mid-century modern cues, the design features predominantly horizontal forms, a flat roof with large overhanging eaves, exposed rafter tails, transom windows, symmetry in both plan and elevation, and large windows overlooking the rear yard amenity space and framing surrounding greenery.
In plan, the bedrooms and private spaces are intentionally located at the front, while all public and living spaces are clustered together. Upon entering the home through a large custom wood-panel door into a spacious hall, unobstructed views immediately unfold reaching across the depth of the floor plan, distinctly made possible by an open-air central courtyard that is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glazing and adjacent corridors. The architect’s reinterpretation of the Eichler Home courtyard, which has been meticulously adapted to the Canadian climate, results in a unique residential architectural feature in the Ottawa area. The adjacent corridors allow for fluid procession through the residence from front to back, by providing a choice to proceed either right or left around the courtyard. Alternatively, one can take the shortcut directly through the courtyard via outward sliding patio doors located at each end, establishing a strong relationship between inside and outside, which is notably one of the most important design themes in Eicher Homes: to bring the outside in. Within the courtyard, a feature tree, bound by a landscaped stone walkway and natural stone steps into the residence, provides a focal point for the design. The courtyard is sloped towards interior perimeter trench drains to strategically shed away annual snowfalls in our northern Canadian climate, when required.
Just past the courtyard are located the common areas in series that include the kitchen, dining area, and living space, each having a playful configuration of large windows providing ample natural light and visual connections to the outdoor yard and greenspace. The rear yard is accessed by two glazed doors, located on each side of the dining area and centered on the circulation hallways flanking the courtyard. This provides generous, unobstructed sight lines through the residence that reach out to the rear yard and intentionally frame key landscaped elements and plantings.
The texture and warm colour of the exterior wood, brick, and stucco finishes blend in harmony, while neutral interior areas of the house come alive as they are cast in varying light and shadows giving a sundial effect as both the sun and moon change positions, all made possible by the central courtyard. The courtyard in a winter snowstorm offers delight akin to watching an internal snow globe.
The window proportions were carefully studied to balance with the solid elements and create a sense of rhythm across the façades. Their locations were intentionally aligned on-center with doorways and hallways beyond, further echoing axial relationships and symmetry found at the very root of the mid-century modern housing design movement. The front-facing awning and transom combination windows, serving two of the four bedrooms, provide a generous amount of natural light to the dwelling areas while creating a subtle feeling of privacy. This intriguing window configuration and symmetrical location across the front façade, paired with the minimalist cladding palette, yields a crisp geometric appearance to the streetscape, while both fitting into context in modest fashion and standing out at the same time.
For Robert and Nicholas at RMA, the success of this project largely came down to their iterative design workflow and principles, as well as a nurtured collaboration with their clients, Isabelle and Pietro. The project began with a set of ideas to reflect key design characteristics of mid-century modern residential architecture, while adapting the design to the site and Canadian climate. These considerations evolved into an understanding of where and how to integrate certain features into the design, all while adjusting to suit a modern-day family’s lifestyle, needs and well-being.
To keep construction costs down as much as possible, Isabelle and Pietro decided to take on the role of “builders” for this project and hired Paragon Homes as construction manager to assist with the selection and management of the various trades.
Then the unforeseeable happened: Covid-19. Preparation for building the new residence had started early in 2020, just a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Ottawa region. The delayed issuance of the building permit meant that that when the Ontario provincial government decided to halt residential construction not already underway, the project had to stop for several months. When the restrictions were lifted and the building permit was finally issued, Isabelle and Pietro were faced with yet more difficulties as the prices of building materials rose sharply and trade workers became very difficult to find.
The framing components for the Borracci residence were pre-ordered and pre-fabricated just before the pandemic struck. However, because of the provincial shutdown, they were temporarily stored at the manufacturer’s premises. As the shutdown dragged on, keeping the material in storage became a challenge. Other challenges included the sudden major price increases for wood (110 per cent in three months) and other building materials and some very frustrating situations when manufacturing facilities closed their shops, such as siding, tiling, roofing, fireplace, as well as windows and doors. When it was all said and done, the pandemic caused a budget increase of around $30,000 and a delay of at least six months.
In the end, the Borracci residence turned out to be a good example of how to create quality architecture and keep costs down as much as possible in unprecedented times.
François LeBlanc is the former National Capital Commission Chief Architect and Head of Field Projects at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles.