Traditionally, homes are centred around the hearth, a place of warmth and light. But a new family home in the Civic Hospital area puts a modern twist on this old custom. Instead of a chimney, it features a lightwell: a glass-floor spine that serves as a modern hub of Mario Scaffardi and Cindy Lagarde’s home.
This reimagined take on the traditional extends beyond the lightwell to encompass numerous exterior and interior elements. The result is a “deconstructed house that feels like it’s modern but is also kind of a commentary on traditional houses,” says Mario.
Outside, the shape of the house is a notable departure from the typical stacked-rectangle infill, though it pays homage to the traditional forms and context of the surrounding ’40s- or ’50s-era pitched-roof three-bedroom homes. Instead of a porch and visible front entry, there’s a lathe-like screen hiding the startling orange front door and the semi-private deck that expands the living room space. “The hidden entrance is a clever conceit,” says Mario. “We have privacy but the ability to see out.”
Inside, the deconstruction continues with peekaboo holes, interrupted sight lines, a labyrinth of stairs and steps, niches for showcasing ceramics and other treasures, plus pleasingly asymmetrical nooks: perfect lounging spaces for Milou, their 10-year-old cat. Instead of the ubiquitous open-concept interior, there is mystery here, a sense of unfolding and privacy despite the lack of obvious closed-off spaces. The couple call it the broken concept. “You turn a corner and something reveals itself,” says Mario.
This departure in design doesn’t compromise functionality — not surprising, given that Mario and Cindy are graphic designers. “This is bang-on for us,” says Mario.
The design process — from daydreaming to moving in — took five years. Mario and Cindy had been living in an ’80s-era house off Main Street in Old Ottawa East for 14 years. They liked it but had their hearts set on designing a modern, clean, effective, and unique space like the ones they loved staying in, such as W Hotels.
As they mulled over ideas, they began the search for a centrally located lot to build on or a house to renovate. What they found in the Civic Hospital area was neither. The house was a teardown within walking distance of work and the restaurants and shops of Little Italy and Hintonburg. “We love the neighbourhood,” says Cindy. “There are lots of kids, and the neighbours are fun and helpful.”
They bought it in April 2013, and demolition began in October. But as the new owners scrambled to get a design and paperwork in order, the house didn’t sit idle. Cindy’s former colleague, Randy Smith, produces short horror films for the annual Monster Pool: Horror Anthology at the Mayfair Theatre. When he asked Cindy if she knew of an abandoned space for his next opus on killer clowns, she told him, “I just bought one!” On the day of filming, Cindy arrived to find Randy’s partner putting the finishing touches on a stick of eyeballs. Inside, fake blood was spattered all over. The later gave the demolishers pause. “I had to tell them, ‘It’s okay, no one actually died,’ ” says Cindy with a laugh.
Amid these hijinks, Mario and Cindy connected with the three young architects at Plotnotplot. “They really understood,” says Cindy simply.
The architects built a scale model of the entire neighbourhood to show Mario and Cindy how the house would fit in with its surroundings. “We didn’t want a contemporary house that’s overbearing,” says co-founder Bex Fernando. “We wanted something subtle because that’s the nature of the street.”
The model house was remarkably similar to a sketch Mario had drawn. “They intuitively knew this was the kind of house we wanted from a geometry standpoint,” says Mario. To avoid the angst of a variance, the house is built on the same footprint as the previous structure, covering 2,100 square feet, not counting the basement.
The defining feature of the house is the lightwell, which gathers sunlight from west-facing windows in the pitched roof through two levels and down to the basement to create a “spine” of light. The architects tracked the sun’s path to see how windows should be placed. “This was the first time we used glass floors and did light on all axes,” says Fernando. The architects would dub the project the Reflex House for the way it is determined by the essential qualities of something else — in this case, light. The result pleases them all. “Mario says he’s noticed an amazing moment when that shaft of light goes straight down,” says Fernando.
Eighteen months after moving in, Mario, Cindy, and the architects all agree that the final arbiter of the success of the house is Milou the cat. Though initially wary of the glass floors that define the lightwell, she now prances across them with ease. And she’s staked out a few of those signature cubbyholes as her domain. “The cat loves the house,” says Fernando. “I feel if she didn’t like the house, we’d be in trouble.”