Red brick outlines two dominant rectangles on the house’s front façade, so your eye quite naturally wanders to those areas. Since one of these zones includes the doorway, it’s pragmatic. But there’s also a bit of artful misdirection, because the thing you don’t immediately notice is the slightly recessed garage door at the bottom of the ramp.
“Hide the garage; express the box,” says Gavin Affleck, co-founder with Richard de la Riva of the Affleck de la Riva architecture firm. That he describes this Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) house as a box might seem unglamorous, but it’s also appropriate.
“It’s a contemporary expression, but if you look at the neighbourhood and its historic buildings, it’s all there,” Affleck explains. “In NDG, there are brick boxes with large bay windows.”
When Affleck de la Riva presented their plans for this modern single-family home to the Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough, the firm met with little resistance. The one proviso was to use red brick instead of the beige-brown masonry the architects originally wanted for the exterior outlines, though they’re still happy with the results.
The project got started in 2010, when frequent collaborator Richard Dufour of Sienna Construction approached Affleck de la Riva to design a house for an empty residential lot the former purchased in NDG.
“These days, empty lots are rare in NDG,” de la Riva says. “The projects tend to be smaller, with single-family homes that are usually attached to other houses, or perhaps it’ll be a duplex. This was a notable project because it was the first time we had a completely detached house in NDG. ‘’
Affleck de la Riva designed as many windows into the façade as the borough’s zoning restrictions would allow. In most Montreal neighbourhoods, windows can occupy about 35 to 40 percent of a street façade, while it’s stricter for the sides of the house, and almost limitless at the back.
“We’re always trying to reach the by-law’s maximum, which sometimes requires some clever composition,” de la Riva comments.
Along the sides, closely spaced vertical windows provide a staggered rhythm of light onto the floor, and skylights beam down from above the stairway. Nearly 75 percent of the back is fenestrated.
Natural light doesn’t just brighten the interiors; it also creates a flow, guiding you to specific communal, or “living” areas of the home. From the narrow entrance, you’re immediately drawn to the amply lit rear of the house, where the kitchen, living, and dining rooms are located, with a door leading to the patio. The parlour, where the where people traditionally wait before being led to the living areas, is in the front, near the more dimly lit entrance.
The disposition of these spaces is part of what makes this house contemporary. It points to a shift in our lifestyles and in our ideas about how a house works.
“The entrance is more or less open, but the important social spaces are towards the back, where it’s roomier,” Affleck points out. “Before, big spaces like the living room were in the front, near the bay windows, and the smaller spaces like the kitchen were in the rear of the house. Today, the intimate parts of our lives are associated with the backyard, so the big spaces and the big windows are now both in the back.”
For de la Riva, the stairway is key to experiencing the house because it provides navigational cues. “There’s generous fenestration revolving around the stairs,” he says, referring to the lateral windows and skylights. “So when you’re walking around, you always have a view of the exterior.”
White walls and pale wooden floors make the natural light seem even more abundant, and also lend an elegant finish to the interiors. The home feels airy and uncluttered.
Affleck, who’s originally from the neighbourhood and still lives there, admits that the big challenge was to breathe new life into the concept of the NDG house. “Modern architecture doesn’t start from zero; it’s rooted in something,” he says. “To update the neighbourhood, you have to modernize it, but in its own traditions, while giving it a new expression.”
Both architects feel this residence represents a new form that’s got NDG in its DNA. “The bay windows might be square instead of curved, but they have NDG proportions,” de la Riva points out.
The real coup is the discreet garage door. Designing around cars is relatively new and wasn’t a concern when NDG was first built, so a stealthy garage is respectful of its historic setting.
Most importantly, like many older NDG homes, this place is comfortable. It’s spacious and pleasant, with many opportunities to find a nook and contemplate the outdoors. Warmed by copious sunlight, the house truly has a life of its own.
Size: 2,700 square feet
Materials used for façade: brick, aluminum, painted stucco
Materials used for interiors: painted plasterboard, hardwood floors
Architect: Affleck de la Riva Architects, affleckdelariva.com
Contractor: Sienna Construction, siennaconstruction.com
Tips from the Architects
- Architecture is a process, and it’s important to take pleasure in it. It’s a bit like cuisine: you appreciate eating more when you enjoy cooking.
- Building a house from scratch is not like buying a car. A house may be a product, but architecture is a service.
- Celebrate the entrance, the interior stairway and natural light.
- Check with your borough about zoning. Once you know what the restrictions are, adjust your expectations accordingly.
- Don’t let the garage door steal the show.
About Affleck de la Riva
Founded in 1995 by Gavin Affleck and Richard de la Riva, the firm’s projects cover architecture, renovation, restoration and urban design. Among their many accomplishments, Affleck de la Riva refurbished Montreal’s City Hall and Victoria School on Maisonneuve Boulevard. They designed Square des Frères-Charon in Old Montreal and several residential complexes in the NDG area, as well as homes in and around Montreal. They are currently working on the revitalization of Cabot Square, across from the old Forum. Both partners are visiting lecturers at the schools of architecture of McGill University and the University of Montreal.