When Lidia and Eric Thor decided to move from the GTA to Ottawa for a more family-friendly lifestyle, Lidia immediately called her family to share the news — and to launch the project of a lifetime. Lidia hoped that her cousin, an intern architect, would design their house and her uncle, a professional builder, would construct it. Mateusz and Jerzy Nowacki happily obliged.
Over the next year, their family collaboration often gave rise to lively discussions but also to the discovery of a shared sensibility and deep trust. “We were all so aligned,” says Lidia. “We were all after the same goal of building a really unique home that met our wants and needs. Mateusz was passionate about that, and Jerzy was so focused on quality. They poured their everything into this house.”
The Thors’ journey began in Oakville, where Eric spent three hours a day commuting to his executive job with TD. The couple knew there had to be a better way to live. Both have an affection for Ottawa. Lidia, who was born in Poland, moved here when she was 10. Six sets of aunts and uncles and 13 cousins, including Mateusz, live in Ontario, and Lidia recalls joy-filled family gatherings at Jerzy’s big house, especially at Christmas. Many relatives still live in the area, including Lidia’s parents.
Eric, too, was fond of Ottawa, where he had worked for two of his 25 years with TD. It was here he met Lidia. After deciding to move back to the capital, he arranged a transfer with TD as the VP retail banking, while Lidia resumed her work as a forensic scientist with the RCMP.
They were soon looking at lots. Jerzy owned several in Manotick, one of which proved to be perfect — one acre with southern exposure, privacy, and mature trees. The Thors bought the land in February 2019, then began compiling their must-haves: an open great space, floor-to-ceiling windows, steel roof, an oversized garage for their hobbies (cars and DIY), uniform flooring, and timeless finishes. Mateusz’s challenge was to translate that list into a final design. A week after their discussions began, Mateusz’s initial sketch arrived. Construction on the 3,450-square-foot house began in May 2019, and the Thors moved in last February.
“I’m deeply passionate about making spaces,” says Mateusz, who began drawing buildings and working on his dad’s construction sites as a child. He graduated in architecture from Carleton, attained his masters, and is now in his fifth internship as he seeks to broaden his experience. He also runs his own freelance business, which he calls Everyday Studio.
“Our daily life is made up of how we inhabit spaces, and that’s why architecture plays such a central role in our lives,” explains Mateusz. “It should be something that takes the everyday occurrences of life and turns them into something spectacular. I think it has that power.”
At first glance, the design appears simple: two single-storey elongated buildings with A-line roofs — a nod to local farm buildings — connect to form a T. But that simplicity is deceptive. Everything had to align down to a millimetre. The A-line roof Mateusz designed has eight different trusses to support claddings and achieve effects that include an asymmetrical cathedral ceiling and no overhangs off the roof, something Jerzy had never seen. He opted to do the framing himself, learning along the way.
In turn, Jerzy convinced Mateusz to build a cathedral ceiling in the outdoor “great space.” And he pointed out that the foyer would need to be wider to accommodate the HVAC. “There were a lot of moments like that where we married practical experience with vision and design,” says Mateusz. “We worked together to create something special. That can only happen when you have a long-term relationship with the contractor — or he’s your dad.”
Mateusz also discovered a kindred spirit in Lidia, who has an online business designing and making clothing, shelving, and more. “We both care about, and appreciate, design,” says Mateusz. “This project came from all our minds, many different tastes and perspectives. The best type of architecture feels like a collaborative process rather than a single vision.”
The sophisticated design abides by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s edict that less is more. “Many houses add bays and wings. This one created volume and carved away from that volume to create secondary spaces,” says Mateusz. These, and the extensive use of floor-to-ceiling windows, create vantage points from the interior to the natural surroundings. A limited palette of materials also served to simplify the look: outside, the long white bricks feel harmonious with the prefinished black cedar tongue-and-groove. The latter also appears inside the house, which is carefully delineated in black or white. The detailing is exquisite — doors are set back to hide hardware, closets are disguised as white expanses.
Perfectly aligned, too, were the family dynamics. Eric’s parents moved from Waterloo to Ottawa last summer. Jerzy built a house for them five minutes away. The Thors now have the lifestyle they’d envisioned, and Lidia dreams of hosting a big family Christmas gathering at their home. Mateusz and Jerzy are a shoo-in to be guests of honour.