California dreaming in Carlingwood

California dreaming in Carlingwood

Isabelle and Pietro Borracci purchased their Carlingwood West home in 2008, and for over 10 years it served them well as a rental investment. But they always dreamed of building on the property, which boasted a large lot, a slight hill, and a quiet streetscape.

Anyone who has found themselves in that area south of Carling will know it lends itself to mid-century modern designs, and the Borraccis wanted to bring their own California-inspired take to the neighbourhood.

Large windows and minimalist furniture near the front door set a modern tone in the entryway. The exterior is simple yet elegant and fits in nicely with the neighbouring homes. Photo by Gordon King

In 2019 the couple made the leap, informing their tenants of their decision to demolish the 1950s era bungalow and create something brand new on the property — indeed, something new for Ottawa, with an inner courtyard and a bold approach to everything from window placement to floorplans.

“It’s always been a dream of ours to build a house there,” says Isabelle. “There was just so much potential!”

While they are delighted with the result — a California-inspired, light-filled home — they could never have foreseen the wild ride it would be to get there. That’s because when COVID sent the world into lockdown, it stopped the construction industry in its tracks. Though the Borraccis had applied for a permit in December 2019, it was not issued until May 2020, by which time the industry was already experiencing labour shortages. The price of materials was skyrocketing; key components were stuck in storage. Some of the trades honoured their pre-shutdown contracts, others met the couple halfway.

But they persevered, and the new single-storey place is a symphony in brick, wood, and steel, perched on a slight hill. It blends sympathetically with the surrounding homes, mostly 1950s low-lying, brick-fronted bungalows.

The living room, dining room, and kitchen all flow as one across the back of the home. The area is well lit from both the central courtyard and the numerous windows facing the backyard. Photo by Gordon King

For inspiration, the homeowners looked at the designs of architect Rudolph A. Matern and real estate developer Joseph Leopold Eichler. The architect had lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home and developed distinctive residential subdivisions of mid-century modern style housing in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many consider Eichler to have changed the face of modern architecture in California and essentially created the California modern aesthetic. With these influences in mind, the Borraccis chose Ottawa architect Robert Martin of Robertson Martin Architects, who is well-versed in this style that focuses on horizontal forms and symmetry. Martin immediately incorporated the key Eichler design features such as a central courtyard or sky-well, and a low-slung roof.

Isabelle Borracci was also deeply involved in the design. She’s a graphic designer and her father, Francois Leblanc, is an architect who worked in conservation for UNESCO in Paris and for the Getty Institute in California. “Proportions are very important to me,” she says, explaining that designs were based on the Golden Ratio, a mathematical rule, also known as the Divine Proportion, that exists in nature and makes elements look balanced. In this new home, it was applied to the placement of windows in the house to create a sense of rhythm.

Boasting 10-foot ceilings on the main floor, the 2,500-square-foot house is flooded with light, even on the dullest day. This is thanks to the central courtyard that glows like a lantern in the heart of the house. Within the courtyard is a slim and airy serviceberry tree, which is surrounded by dark grey tile and stones. At least one bee has found its way into the courtyard to pollinate the serviceberry flowers. The family hopes to see red berries on the tree this fall. Sliding doors allow the homeowners and their guests to walk directly through the centre of the house, rather than around either side. This impressive element establishes 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.

Left: Francois Leblanc, Pietro Borracci, and Isabelle Borracci. Portrait photo by David Kawai. Right: This dining set, brought from their previous home, fit perfectly in the new space and adds warmth. Photo by Gordon King

While anyone visiting the house will appreciate the many large windows, this detail actually required extra care because it surpasses the amount of glass allowed under City of Ottawa building codes. As a result, the couple had to put in commercial-grade, triple-glazed panels throughout to mitigate heat loss. This construction detail, along with the many inches of rigid foam insulation, has produced a house with a tightly sealed envelope. Heating costs are less than their previous home, which was much smaller.

The bedrooms are located on either side of the magnificent oversized mahogany front door, facing the quiet street. By placing the bedrooms and other private spaces at the front of the house, Martin was able to cluster the shared living spaces together, near the back of the house.

The kitchen, dining area, and sitting room stretch across the full 100-foot rear. Light floods in from every corner. Two doors lead to the garden. The large kitchen and dining table are bathed in natural light. “This is my favourite part of the house,” says Isabelle. “It was built to entertain.”

The finishes are consistent throughout the house: walnut and brushed gold hardware on the Deslauriers kitchen cabinets, light fixtures, shelving and the front door. For other interior doors, Isabelle chose black iron. Maple hardwood floors throughout exude a sense of simplified luxury.

Reflecting on the process, the Borraccis are thrilled with the results. “I personally feel very lucky to have been able to realize my own dream to work on this sort of project with my father, who is not getting younger and who was able to provide us with invaluable advice throughout,” says Isabelle.

While all these details combine to create a house that vibrates in harmony, for Pietro it’s the courtyard that sings. “Especially at night, when I can look up to see the moon, and in the winter, when it’s like a snow globe.”