This article was a feature story for the Interiors 2015 issue of Ottawa Magazine.
By SARAH BROWN
Photography by MARC FOWLER – metropolisstudio.com
A chance convergence of circumstances leads a young family to pull up stakes and move to a new neighbourhood, building a delightful home oriented to take in sunny views over the Rideau River
This is a house that almost didn’t get built. It took a whole series of connected happenings — some fortunate and some not — to create the conditions that culminated in the decision to build this light-filled family home just off the Rideau River. The sequence of events took place over five years, beginning in 2005. At the time, Michaela and Sean* were living in Alta Vista with their three small children. Though they loved their community, they were feeling cramped in their tiny bungalow. They began exploring the idea of renovating but were put off by the costs of reconfiguring and expanding an older house. “Believe it or not, it was never our dream to build a house,” says Michaela with a laugh, as she relaxes on a burgundy couch in the second-floor family area, sunlight streaming in on two sides through floor-to-ceiling windows. This is where the kids get together to hang out and play, surrounded by colourful furniture, custom bookshelves filled with children’s fare, and a striking piece of hanging wall art that looks for all the world like an overhead view of a hot-air-balloon convention. (Michaela chose the fun fabric and created the piece by stretching it over a frame — voilà, art that’s easy to replace if the kids get bored with it.)In contrast to most single houses, which are typically wood framed, this one is built of concrete and steel. Nothing creaks. “The solidity of the house was something we noticed about many homes in the south of Germany, where Michaela is from,” notes Sean. “We knew we wanted to emulate this.” Photo by Marc Fowler
The story goes like this: While Michaela and Sean were debating the pros and cons of renovating or moving within Alta Vista, Sean’s father got some unwelcome news about a development property he had bought in Old Ottawa South, just steps from the Rideau River. He had hoped to replace the small cottage-type house on the site with a duplex, but the city denied his application. And so the house sat empty, the property in limbo. In 2007, he offered to sell it to his son, but the couple hesitated, still committed to finding a place in Alta Vista to call home. And then circumstances forced Michaela and Sean to act. Even as they debated what to do next, they discovered that they would have to commit to a major renovation before they could even think of selling their bungalow. “Basically, we got news that the floors were sinking!” says Michaela with a shake of her head. While the construction teams got to work on their house, the young family made a temporary move into the little white cottage in Old Ottawa South. And that’s how a life-changing decision came to pass. “When we actually got to live here, we realized just how special and beautiful the property was,” says Michaela.
The couple began the process of looking for an architect.
Enter architect John Donkin, who happens to live just around the corner from Michaela and Sean. He already knew the neighbourhood intimately and was thrilled by the possibilities of the site. While Donkin immediately set to work, using a computer to model the site and map the views from various elevations, the couple took a more hands-on approach, renting a cherry picker that took them up for a quick bird’s-eye view. That experience on high inspired a design that sees the three-storey house situated to take advantage of the river views through floor-to-ceiling windows. “The south wall forms a zone,” says Donkin. “To me, it’s not where the building is separated from the outside — it’s where the building is attached to the outside.” While the architect and the homeowners were careful to preserve two mature maples in the front yard — they provide both beauty and privacy — Michaela stresses that you have to be willing to see and be seen when you opt to live in a glass house. “It’s kind of a statement to open yourself up to being looked at. I don’t mind people watching me baking or making dinner — it’s a nice way to connect with people walking by.”
Theirs is a very close family, and Michaela notes that the interior design of the house, which was completed in 2010, was conceived with the notion of nurturing that intimacy. “I was worried that in a larger house, we might become disconnected, so we thought very carefully about how to plan the main floor and the second floor [where the children’s rooms are situated] to make sure the kids didn’t just end up tucked away in their rooms.”
On the main floor, the warm and welcoming kitchen anchors an open-concept space that also takes in the dining room, living room, and family room. Though the rest of the house has lightness to it, with white walls and floating oak cabinetry, here Michaela chose a joyful orange backsplash. “I love orange. To me, it brings warmth and light and a very positive energy.”
Upstairs, the children’s bedrooms are arrayed around an open gathering area that encourages interaction. There are no desks in the kids’ rooms; instead, they are encouraged to do homework and projects together at a large communal table. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves hold hundreds of children’s books, while comfy chairs boast beautiful views through the towering maples in the front yard. Michaela and Sean strongly believed that it was important to create spaces that the family could use together and that the kids would use to socialize with their friends, and that’s exactly what has happened. Even the decision to have a single bathroom on the second floor was carefully made. “We’re lucky to have a big house, but learning to share space is very important. It’s how you learn to live together well,” says Michaela.
The third floor is a sanctuary for two busy parents, the master bedroom and luxurious master bathroom sharing space with an expansive yoga studio with its own private balcony. From the first moment they took in the view from atop that rented cherry picker, Michaela and Sean had a vision for their shared space. “This is where we, as adults, can be away from everything — no TV, no interference, just a quiet space,” says Michaela. The real showpiece is the airy master bathroom, its deep tub divided from the open shower by a simple sheet of glass. The elevation means no curtains are needed, allowing the couple to enjoy a clear view of the river with their morning shower. “In winter, especially, it’s gorgeous,” says Michaela. “The leaves are off the trees, and you look across the frozen river and into the blue sky.”
The more nuts-and-bolts aspects of the house were just as carefully considered as the interior layouts. Michaela, who moved as an adult to Canada from Germany, was used to the solidity of concrete buildings. “When I first moved here, I found all the creaking of the wood floors and the wood frames very hard to deal with,” she says. Although she got used to the creakiness over the years, she still secretly wished for the silence of concrete floors. With that in mind, Donkin conceived a house that has more in common with a commercial building: the floors are concrete slabs poured onto steel joists, while all the windows are metal framed. It all makes for a very solid building — and the need to get everything exactly right on the first go-round.Michaela says she consulted stacks of design magazines when planning the luxurious master bathroom. The deep tub, with its concrete surround, is divided from the open shower by a simple sheet of glass. Because the room is situated on the third floor, it needs no curtains, allowing the couple to enjoy a clear view of the river with their morning shower. “In winter, especially, it’s gorgeous,” says Michaela. “The leaves are off the trees, and you look across the frozen river and into the blue sky.” Photo by Marc Fowler
“When you have a wood frame and drywall, you can tweak as you go and make some changes on the fly,” says Donkin. “This type of construction forces you to be very intense with the details — to get everything just right.”
Having everything just so included designing the custom built-in cabinetry that imparts a unified look to all three storeys. Donkin refers to the larger pieces as architectural elements, all tied by their look and lightness. Cabinets, shelves, and bookshelves share the same modern, minimalist style, and all give the impression that they’re floating. Indeed, every piece is lifted off the ground, giving even the largest of closets a feeling of weightlessness.
Four years after moving in, the family has truly made this house their own, filling it with family and friends, furniture and artwork. There were many years of uncertainty, but when the circumstances aligned, a light-filled family home was born. They can’t imagine living anywhere else.