Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on April 12, 2014. Photo by Marc Cramer.
Ancient Roman politician Pliny the Younger owned many villas, and he enjoyed writing out them in great detail. It’s why architecture school students are sometimes assigned to design villas based on his descriptions.
Those very writings influenced the T House, designed by the eponymous founder of Natalie Dionne Architecture and her partner, Martin Laneuville. “It’s very creatively stimulating,” Dionne says of visualizing Pliny’s accounts. “The way people lived in places with views, the depiction of these spaces, the height, the proportions: it’s all so evocative.”
Nestled in the bush, the T House is a hillside home in the Eastern Townships with sweeping views of Mount Sutton. Its Pliny-inspired design does more than provide opportunities to contemplate nature; it’s symbiotic with it.
Starting with its T-shape, each side of the house faces the four cardinal directions. The cooler north side has the fewest windows. The wooden deck, master bedroom and living room are part of the heavily fenestrated east, which faces the mountain. On the warmer south side is the pool. The shaded west is where you’ll find the guest rooms, the entrance and a water garden built around a gently rustling creek that leads to a pond at the foot of the hill. From the dining room, located in the centre of the house, you can watch the sunrise or sunset.
The house’s positioning is quite deliberate. Using the 3D modelling software Google SketchUp, Dionne and Laneuville could assess optimal arrangements around natural light and even gauge how it would shift from one season to the next.
Showing me a 3D model of the T House in SketchUp, Laneuville demonstrates how the program helped them make design decisions. “Because of this,” he says, “we were able to see how much sunlight came in at, say, 12:30 pm during the summer solstice, so we made the roof jut out a bit more on the patio to prevent overheating.”
The home has a seamless indoor-outdoor flow. Materials used on the home’s exteriors – like Corten steel, wood siding or the slate patio covering – are also found in the interiors. The woodworked kitchen and living room recall the alcove of the entrance. The ample fenestration gives the impression of being in a sheltered outdoor space, especially when the windows are opened.
Artificial light also emphasizes this continuity at night. For example, recessed spot fixtures are lined up inside, next to the dining area, and continue outside towards the wooden deck. Spots are used to graze some of the exterior façades, evoking some of the interior motifs that can be seen from the windows at night.
“What’s important is not the fixture but the atmosphere it creates,” Dionne points out. That’s why spots are also directed at a painting in the living room, creating a dramatic reference point that can be seen from the other extremity of the T. In general, the night-time lighting in the living areas is subtle and sparse.
In addition to its bucolic composition, the T House is also Novoclimat-certified, so the home is energy-efficient. During winter, a hydronic system heats the concrete and natural stone flooring, which becomes cool and comfortable in the summer. The windows are positioned to allow cross-ventilation, requiring little to no air conditioning during summer, while letting in enough natural light in the winter to bathe the interiors in warmth.
On top of the Novoclimat features, the house is also heated by a geothermal system. “Geothermal energy has great long-term benefits, but you need the budget to invest in it initially,” Dionne admits. “Still, it’s a good thing because 25% of your energy ends up coming from the ground.”
What Dionne likes most about the T House is a little nook by the windows that are perpendicular to the entrance, and from which you can see the pool. “This spot plays with the indoor-outdoor movement, the elements of the landscape architecture and the flow-through of the little paths that guide you throughout the home.” she says.
For their part, the owners are most pleased with the views of Mount Sutton, which was their top priority when they approached Dionne to build this home.
Meantime, the judges of the Grands Prix du design liked the T House so much, they gave it an award in the category of Residential Space (1,600 to 3,200 square feet) in January 2014.
That’s what happens when an architect can see a project through. “Every last detail was of this house was designed,” Dionne says. “We also oversaw construction and designed all the built-in furniture, like the book shelf in the living room.”
Even though residential construction bylaws in the Eastern Townships are fairly flexible, our Nordic weather means we can’t expect some of the more extravagant Mediterranean or Californian homes we might see in architecture magazines. But that doesn’t have to limit the imagination.
“Here, you can still build a house with many windows and make it comfortable, as long as the spaces are well sealed and insulated, and the fenestration is well oriented,” Dionne concludes.
Best to work with the nature of our climate instead of repressing it.
Size: 3,200 square feet
Materials used for façade: Torrefied wood siding, fibre cement panelling and Corten steel
Materials used for interiors: Polished concrete, quarter-sawn white oak flooring and panelling, torrefied wood siding and Corten steel
Architect: Natalie Dionne Architecture, ndarchitecture.net
Landscape Architect: Topia Solutions Jardins, topia.ca
Green Building Consultant: synAIRgis, synairgis.com
Contractor: Roger Élie
Tips from the Architect
- Take the time to find a good contractor and to properly plan the adventure you’re about to embark on together.
- Designing and building a house from scratch with an architect is not the same as buying a ready-made home, but the cost can be comparable. Most of the investment goes towards the design and construction in the former scenario, while the latter is often priced to take a real estate agent into account.
- Check residential bylaws because they can be tricky. In the case of the T House, Dionne had to rework the pool’s construction plans for safety. As a result, she managed to keep one side of the pool 4 feet off the ground to avoid using a fence, which would have limited the natural appeal of the house in its surrounding landscape.
About Natalie Dionne Architecture (NDA)
Natalie Dionne founded her business in 2000 and was joined by her life partner Martin Laneuville in 2008. Their award-winning U House in the Plateau-Mont-Royal serves as both their home and their architecture studio.