Homes

GREAT SPACE: A cozy, sunny home designed for a growing Westboro family

On the footprint of a former worker’s cottage in Westboro, a young family has carved out a cozy, sunny home

BY BARBARA SIBBALD
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LORNE BLYTHE

The triptych of alcoves backing onto the central core was prophetic. Jackson likes to sit and read in one; now with the arrival of the twins, Amelia and Penelope, in November, there is an alcove for each child.
The triptych of alcoves backing onto the central core was prophetic. Jackson likes to sit and read in one; now with the arrival of the twins, Amelia and Penelope, in November, there is an alcove for each child. Photo by Lorne Blythe

Economical urban design may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s the zeitgeist behind architect Jay Lim’s new home and office in a burgeoning corner of Westboro. Designed in tandem with his wife, Lucy Hargreaves, the 1,400-square-foot house mimics the luxury feel of most modern houses, with its open concept, high-end fixtures, built-ins, and metal siding. But looks can be deceiving. Jay called on his architectural knowledge and previous work experience to complete this comfortable family home on a tight budget. Inspiration came from the three houses he had previously designed for Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organization that mobilizes volunteers and the community to build affordable homes for people who otherwise could not afford them. With donated materials and labour, the Habitat houses clocked in at only $67 a square foot. “It taught me what things are worth spending money on versus where to economize,” says Jay.

 

Jay and Lucy paid homage to the original cottage by preserving its footprint, which is clad in vertical white. The new part is in black. Photo by Lorne Blythe

In his own house, he mixed and matched high- and low-end fixtures and built some furniture from construction leftovers and materials scavenged from the trash. He chose a lower grade of reclaimed wood flooring. And he bundled the utilities into a central core to save money. Plus, he wrapped the whole building in inexpensive metal siding — the kind seen on barn roofs. All this netted substantial savings, with costs well below the usual $200 per square foot charged by many developers.

Jay recalls how it was on those earlier Habitat for Humanity projects where he first used leftover wood to make low-cost furniture for a family that had none. That sort of green experiment wasn’t part of the commission, but it is part of his company’s mandate. The moniker 25:8 Research + Design comes from the 24:7 cliché: the three partners wanted to cram more into their busy days, so “we decided to make some more time,” says Jay. Their designs are mostly residential, while their research delves into water, urban conditions, or whatever interests them. Jay met his two business partners in the urban design and architecture graduate program at Columbia University in New York City. The other two still call New York home, while he and Lucy, both Toronto natives, relocated to Ottawa in 2009 when she started a job with the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada as senior program manager. Jay continues to design residences from his home office while also teaching design studio and building technology at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture. Not surprisingly, given his interests, he’s a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited professional. Their new house reflects his passions and talent, as well as the couple’s desire to create a space that suits their family’s life.

Light reflects off the walls and white-washed floors in a space that manages to be at once compact and surprisingly spacious. It’s a good thing, given that the family of three became a family of five following the birth of twins in November. There’s an open-concept living space and office on the main floor, while the second level includes two bathrooms and three bedrooms. Generous nooks showcase artwork and objets d’art, and the cut-outs edged with bright orange afford expanded views to the outdoors or hidden interiors. Here, every facet of design has been carefully considered.

Jay_Lim_Kitchen-resize
The ingenious “bite” out of the stairwell provides the five-foot-four-inch cook with a view of a favourite painting. The appliances aren’t the highest end, but they work well and blend in with the white Ikea cabinets. “It’s Scandinavian designed,” jokes Jay. Plexiglas covers the risers in the stairs to make them baby-safe. Photo by Lorne Blythe

 

The discovery of this house, tucked away on quiet Winona Street, was a fortunate happenstance. When they moved to Ottawa in June of 2009, Jay and Lucy immediately began exploring neighbourhoods close to downtown for a property they could renovate or tear down. They had been searching unsuccessfully for a few months when, one fall afternoon, Jay missed the Parkdale turnoff to home while cycling along the Ottawa River bike path. He cut south at Westboro Beach and spotted a For Sale sign on a tiny bungalow on Winona Street. The lot was a fair size; the location was perfect. The couple set up an appointment and toured the property that same night.

The house features three decks. While the back deck is primarily for entertaining, the rooftop is a private family area, completely enclosed so that two-year-old Jackson can run around. Thriving on the northeast side is a rooftop vegetable garden, and there’s a hammock for napping. The third deck, off the master bedroom, is ideal for a before-bed glass of wine. Photo by Lorne Blythe

The bungalow was originally a worker’s cottage, one of several still standing on adjacent streets that were built for workers at Skead’s Mills, a circa 1871 sawmill at Kitchissippi Lookout. The 800-square-foot cinder-block building was cramped and in very poor condition, but the lot was 46 by 90 feet — big enough for an addition — and it was close to the beach, bike paths, stores, cafés, and transit. Jay knew immediately: “This is the house we’re going to buy.”

The couple lived there for 2½ years before renovating. Living in situ gave them a chance to truly understand the space and develop a plan based on the existing house and lot. (“I respected this house for what it was — one of the original cottages in this neighbourhood,” explains Jay.) Though the covered back porch was in terrible condition, they loved that it allowed them to eat outside, rain or shine. “The way we were using the space consolidated the idea for us of having a kitchen that opened up to the backyard,” says Lucy. “We use this space a lot as a family.” Jay began drawing up plans — all told, he would end up doing 25 renderings before settling on a final design.

The process was collaborative. “It worked well because our aesthetic is pretty similar,” says Lucy.

“She’s the best wife ever,” adds Jay. “She trusted me.”

“Make sure you quote that,” she quips.

When Lucy became pregnant with Jackson early in 2012, the couple pushed forward with building. But there was a glitch. They had planned on adding to the existing house, but after a bit of preliminary digging, they discovered that the walls weren’t holding up well and the slab foundation couldn’t support the house. “We realized then that there was no point in spending the money to do all these acrobatics to keep the original house,” says Jay.

Jay and Lucy love to wake up in a bright room, so the master bedroom was deliberately positioned to take advantage of the morning sun which flows in from the balcony doors and slit windows. There's also a small built-in desk for Lucy and an ample walk-in closet. Photo by Lorne Blythe
Jay and Lucy love to wake up in a bright room, so the master bedroom was deliberately positioned to take advantage of the morning sun which flows in from the balcony doors and slit windows. There’s also a small built-in desk for Lucy and an ample walk-in closet. Photo by Lorne Blythe

They made the difficult decision to demolish. On the plus side, this allowed them to put in a basement, which they plan to finish soon. But Jay and Lucy regretted losing the cottage, so they determined to pay homage to it by preserving its footprint. On the new house, the portion clad in vertical white siding is an “echo” of the original footprint, while horizontal black siding demarcates the addition.

“Architecturally, it makes the black elements look like they are ‘inserted’ into the white box,” says Jay.

The bungalow came down in spring 2012, and for the next 10 months, Jay, Lucy and, as of August of that year, Jackson, lived in short-term rentals downtown. Lucy took seven months parental leave, then Jay took five. “When Jackson was sleeping, I’d go for a run with him in his orange stroller to the site,” says Jay. The workers were glad to see them because it meant one of them could take a break and walk the baby while Jay did a site inspection. “They’d do paper-rock-scissors to see who got to walk the baby,” he says, laughing.

 

Jay Lim, Lucy Hargreaves, and their son Jackson hang out in the hub of the house: the kitchen and dining area. Orange accents throughout the house are a tribute to Syracuse University, where Jay did his undergrad. “If you use it in small areas, it can brighten up the space,” he says. Photo by Lorne Blythe

The family moved into their new home in July 2013, but the original house is never far from their thoughts. “I still sometimes sit in the living room and think, Oh, this was where our bed used to be,” says Lucy. They also integrated a few mementoes from the old bungalow: a small square of the back-door screen now covers a peephole in the guard rail on the back deck that allows Lucy to see through to the back garden when she’s in the kitchen. And prominently on display in the living room is the original coal-chute door, as well as a small brown bottle, once containing Egyptian liniment, dug up during the excavation.

Like the cottage it replaced, this house is very practical. All but two rooms have two or more windows, so there’s cross ventilation and no need for air conditioning. The house is super-insulated with spray foam and boasts higher-end windows and a high-efficiency forced-air gas furnace. But the biggest economy is the inner core — the “tree trunk,” as Jay calls it — occupying the centre of the house. Painted grey, to contrast with the all-white interior, this core houses all the utilities: plumbing, heating, and electricity. That means only one wall contains plumbing, and ductwork is limited. “It saved us a ton of money,” explains Jay. Their frugality and eco-consciousness also extended to leftover wood. As part of their research, they reused framing material for built-in benches and the rooftop deck and furnishings. Plywood was repurposed for tables and desks.

Would they do it again? “In a second,” says Jay. “I think everyone should design their own house. It’s the most expensive thing you’ll ever buy, yet we usually conform ourselves to developers’ ideas. What’s great about this house is that it cost less than a developer’s house because of the way we built it, and it also exactly fits our lifestyle. It’s exactly what we need and want.”

The gleaming kitchen opens up onto a welcoming covered outdoor deck in the same location as the original cottage's covered deck. Jay and Lucy use it, rain or shine, and guests naturally spill out onto it. Photo by Lorne Blythe
The gleaming kitchen opens up onto a welcoming covered outdoor deck in the same location as the original cottage’s covered deck. Jay and Lucy use it, rain or shine, and guests naturally spill out onto it. Photo by Lorne Blythe