A HOUSE WE LOVE: A modern, light-filled house in Hintonburg — described by its owners as a living lab

An architect couple envisage their new house as a work-in-progress — a living lab whose elements can be modified gradually as their family changes and new ideas present themselves. This story originally appeared in Ottawa Magazine’s 2013 Interiors edition. Order your copy here.

By Barbara Sibbald; Photography Christian Lalonde,

Despite the narrow width of the house, light floods into the living, dining, and kitchen areas, reflecting off the white walls and concreate floors to lend a feeling of spaciousness. Touches of wood, including the raw wood stairs down to the sunken living room, add warmth and comfort. Photography by Christian Lalonde,

Why would anyone buy a thrown-together workman’s shack dating from 1903 and then set about making it their home? The Bayswater Avenue property was literally and figuratively the low point on the street, with the back alley a gathering place for all the runoff every spring and the house the victim of many haphazard renos.

Yet architects Emmanuelle van Rutten and Mohammed al Riffai looked beyond the negatives and saw a charming little cottage set back from the rest of the houses and with a giant maple in the front courtyard. Amid the brick houses along this Hintonburg street, it was decidedly the black sheep — and it stole their hearts.

The couple, who both work at leading Canadian architectural firm Moriyama & Teshima Architects, were also attracted to the neighbourhood itself, with its sense of community and mix of people, as well as to the tree-lined street, which has a back alley that leaves front yards car-free. And so, in 2004, they bought the 900-square-foot 13-foot-wide house with the full knowledge that it was poorly built.

Although the new house is decidedly modern, the owners wanted it to fit in with the Hintonburg neighbourhood. The front is clad in brick, like the neighbouring houses, except theirs is shiny black. Photography by Christian Lalonde,

In June 2010, after six years of renovating and living there, they had to face facts. When they asked for a quote for the long-planned front addition, they got the sense that building new would be a better investment, in terms of both money and the confidence that they wouldn’t run into unforeseen circumstances. Plus, their contractor couldn’t provide a firm price, given the vagaries of the torqued building.

They demolished in September and started building. In May 2011, they moved back in. At the time, only the north wall had exterior cladding, but they were happy to be home. Almost one year later, the house is a work-in-progress as they wait for the perfect idea or solution before completely finishing each section of the house.

The outside comes in in the spacious kitchen (located at the back of the house), with its incredibly practical 16-foot-long island, which forms the utilitarian hub of the house. Photography by Christian Lalonde / Photolux Studio

This is a first home that is exquisitely detailed and well conceived in both form and function.

The couple’s biggest challenge was the narrow lot, just 25 feet wide by 130 feet deep.

The kitchen remains relatively narrow at about 13 feet, after which the house is about 18 feet wide. This extra width gives much-needed space for larger bedrooms upstairs and for a more spacious great room on the main level.

The kitchen and dining areas are visually separated from the sunken living room by steps constructed of rough-hewn pine logs harkening back to Ottawa’s lumber heritage.

The kitchen is sleek and modern, with shiny white Ikea Abstrakt cabinets lining the north wall all the way to the bank of windows and doors at the back. By choosing the relatively inexpensive cabinets, the couple could invest money in other aspects of the construction — such as good-quality wooden windows.

Upstairs, the couple could not put windows in the south wall because of its proximity to the neighbouring house. And yet the space is still flooded with light, thanks largely to a skylight at the top of the stairs that illuminates the hallway and a second one by the open office space.

Upstairs, the couple could not put windows in the south wall because of its proximity to the neighbouring house. And yet the space is still flooded with light, thanks largely to a skylight at the top of the stairs. Photography by Christian Lalonde / Photolux Studio

As well, a tiny balcony and strategically placed windows in other walls in each of the three bedrooms allow for both light and air flow. It has all been done with a lot of thought.

Part of the functionality of the house is its sustainability. It’s heated economically by gas with radiant heat in the concrete floors, while the walls contain structural panels that form a continuous layer of insulation.

In the end, Emmanuelle and Mohammed have met their design goals, creating a modern building that fits in with this older neighbourhood. “We love the neighbourhood and we want to belong here,” says Emmanuelle, adding that local reaction to the new kid on the block has been overwhelmingly positive. And on a personal level, the entire family is enjoying life in the house. The owners give a nod to Le Corbusier, one of the founders of modernism and modular design and construction, by referring to the house as “a living machine” — one that adapts quickly and easily as their needs change.

The front entranceway may eventually feature a practical closet, but for now, it’s home to the surrealist corner — an eclectic juxtaposition of artwork and historic pictures. Photography by Christian Lalonde / Photolux Studio