Books as Building Stones: Historians’ Library and Residence, Cambridge, Ontario

A simple building, a complex client, and a deeply meaningful library

The library includes floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along the south wall, along with a built-in desk adjacent to the north-facing horizontal slot window.

PROJECT Historians’ Library and Residence

ARCHITECT Dowling Architects

TEXT Zaven Titizian

PHOTOS Henry Dowling & Paul Dowling

“During the construction of the library, I often felt like a medieval bishop,” joked Robert Jan van Pelt—an architectural historian and tenured professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture. “I had sold the last of my religious treasures, all for the cathedral envisioned by my master builder, Paul, in whom I had absolute faith.” 

Architect Paul Dowling laughed when I told him that. He had spent the last five years designing and building a private library and residence extension for Robert Jan and fellow historian Miriam Greenbaum. Paul was more humble when describing the project, which for him is “a simple building to house a complex client—and a deeply meaningful library.”

Corrugated metal roofing folds over the sides of the building, adding a contrasting texture to the cast-in-place concrete foundation wall. ABOVE right The library’s lowered entrance is glimpsed from the side yard of the property.

A Simple Building and a Complex Client

The design of the detached, backyard library began, like most projects do, with a simple list of requirements. It should safely enclose the historians’ collection—a sober fonds focused on Holocaust history, concentration camps, and military barracks. It should have a space for Miriam and Robert Jan to work, with accessible storage for ongoing research and oversized folios. Finally, it should include a small washroom, and a sofa for the occasional overnight guest.

In addition to these programmatic requirements, there were other, less tangible requests that arose from conversations between Paul and the historians. Sometimes this came in the form of a literary excerpt—for instance, a description of the snug, seafaring cabin of Dr. Clawbonny from Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras—or a personal memory, like of the German bunkers Robert Jan played in as a child. These musings inspired, rather than prescribed, what would become characteristic elements of the library such as its deep wall section, horizontal slot window, and shell-like enclosure.

Exploded isometric (Conrad Speckert)

Paul worked extensively with physical models to conceptualize the contemporary design within the compact yard of the historians’ existing single-storey home—a white stucco residence which has stood in the historic community of Galt in Cambridge, Ontario, since the 1860s. The bungalow was originally built as a domicile for the farmhand who tended the properties of a large hilltop residence nearby. Paul sought to honour the patinaed quality of the existing site by choosing materials and finishes intended to age over time and weather alongside the home. Paul saw working in model form as an important first step in the project’s realization, with a clear progression of tactile design development that continued through fabrication drawings and mockups towards a building which is comprehensive in its approach to details, materials, and site context.

While some designers might pass off work to a contractor once the initial design is complete, for Paul, this is when “most of the invention begins—and it’s too interesting not to be involved in that part of the work.” For the past 30 years, Paul and his partner, Catherine Dowling, have used their home and studio as a testing ground for architectural experiments. By combining their self-build experience with knowledge of construction management from past projects, they created a company called BUILD to act as the design–builder for the library. Paul said that the project size and client–architect relationship was perfectly aligned for them to take on this role. It allowed them to do the majority of concrete, framing, roofing, and millwork construction themselves, and facilitated in situ design decisions while working alongside skilled tradespeople for the excavation, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and steel fabrication.

The rectangular volume of the library sits in the compact backyard behind architectural historian Robert Jan Van Pelt and historian Miriam Greenbaum’s home, a 160-year-old bungalow in Cambridge, Ontario.

The library itself is a simple rectangular volume located along the long edge of the deep, narrow yard. A corrugated metal roof folds around a white-oak-batten-clad frame and cantilevers out over the fenestrated ends. Site-cast concrete foundations are revealed across the hillside site and extend into patios below the exterior overhangs. The primary entry is partially sunk below grade to mediate the sloping site. Central to the project is a large slot window running more than half the length of the building, looking out over a wild, rocky garden and stealing views and speckled shade from the neighbouring trees.

Partway through the construction, Robert Jan and Miriam decided that they would leave their home in Toronto and settle permanently in their Galt residence. They expanded Paul’s scope to include an extension to their home, adding a washroom with a shower, stair access to the basement utilities, and relocating the front entrance to a red cedar volume at the side of the house. The library was temporarily put on hold, but the newly enclosed space became Paul’s workshop during the pandemic.

From this library-turned-workshop, Paul could mock up one-to-one details in situ as the finishing touches were being made to the library. Paul sketched plans for the residence extension on the stud framing of the library for his clients. He remembers holding up full-scale mockups of the library’s custom wood mullions, giving Robert Jan and Miriam a sense of how materials would react to the lighting on site. “I think it is the experimentation involved in the making that appeals to us so strongly,” Paul explained. “Being influenced by both materials and workmanship, to discover how we can achieve architectural ideas of form and experience. It’s difficult to achieve that working only on paper or the computer screen.”

The library’s lowered entrance is glimpsed from the side yard of the property.

Entering into the finished library is like stepping into a Willem van Haecht painting: it feels both intimate and infinite. Books pulled flush with the built-in millwork shelves look like masonry blocks stacked from floor to ceiling, holding up a slatted wood soffit. The warm,
unfinished Douglas fir bookshelves flank either side of a single, uninterrupted axis that runs from one end of the library to the other. The space is furnished by a patchwork of rugs and Dutch armchairs laid out over the polished concrete floor. Carved into the poché of bookshelves is an interior niche divided by a structural board-form concrete wall which separates a daybed from a massive black walnut desktop, set perfectly flush with the central slot window.

Exemplifying the kind of thoughtful diligence that went into each detail of the construction is the bespoke shutter system for the slot window. Paul recalls that “the glazing was much too large for any kind of traditional folding shutter, but sliding, overhead panels could be recessed into [the] thick wall section.” Since the shutter needed to be as light as possible, it was built like a hollow core door, using lightweight interior framing, 1/4” Douglas fir plywood skins, and a bottom edge reinforced with aluminum plate to provide lateral stiffness. 

The shutter design is based on traditional counterweighted sash windows, though the main challenge came from its long horizontal proportions. Threaded rods extend down into the panel framing and connect to stainless steel aircraft cables, which run over ball bearing pulleys to a bundle of steel reinforcing rods. Racking is prevented by spring-loaded wheels that run in tracks along each vertical edge. “[The shutter] was particularly satisfying to see in place, as the design evolved over a long period of time, and I kept coming back to it over the course of the project,” says Paul.

The connections between materials were carefully considered and hand-crafted by architect Paul Dowling and his team of designers and students.

The building’s enclosure is also particularly clever. Based on Passivhaus standards, Paul included insulation in the framing layer and a robust smart vapour control membrane, which protects against condensation, allows drying of the assembly, and provides a very airtight enclosure. Similarly, the heated concrete slab rests on a thick layer of EPS foam insulation to allow a continuous thermal break at walls, roof and floor. The bookcases comprising the long south wall are hung from the service framing, which in turn rests on the floating slab. “Minimal thermal bridges occur where wood beams supporting the upper bookcases connect to primary structure at the east and west walls,” Paul explains, “and insulated foundations for the concrete and wood interior shear walls project through the concrete slab.” Temperature, fresh air, and humidity are controlled to residential standards with a heated floor, energy recovery ventilator, and cooling unit.

There is a simplicity to the building that only comes from a patient, uncompromising attention to each detail—all in service of a greater whole—without ever losing sight of the complexities that make the project so meaningful.

Plan and sections

A Deeply Meaningful Library

Paul and Robert Jan both teach at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, which is only a ten minute walk from the library. From its inception, the library and residence were intended to extend themselves, at times, to the school, its students, and visiting scholars. Prior to the library’s design, Paul had helped set up a design-build program for the university. For the library’s construction, Paul hired several undergraduate students who were involved in the design–build program, and mentored them through various phases in the project.

The consensus that emerged when I spoke to some of these students was that they learned more from their time under Paul—helping pour foundations and set concrete, framing and enclosing the library, and crafting millwork details—than they had at any other point in their academic career. The experience had a profound impact on the students, many of whom have gone on to become successful advocates for the importance of designing through craft.

A simple wood shutter is integrated into the design of the east window.

Robert Jan and Miriam hope that the library can continue to be a teaching moment for young prospective architects at the university. It is one of only a few examples of exemplary contemporary design in Galt, and a demonstrably successful precedent for a process that we rarely see in Canada: the architect working as a craftsperson. Paul’s slow and exacting process is an important counterpoint to the aggressive, rapid development that otherwise surrounds the library. After the time I have spent with Paul and this project, I can’t help but return to what Robert Jan said when we first met. Maybe there is some truth in that joke. Maybe the role of master builder hasn’t been completely lost to history.

Zaven Titizian is an architectural designer, writer, and researcher based in Tiohti:áke (Montréal), Canada. His M.Arch thesis at the University of Waterloo was supervised by Robert Jan van Pelt.

CLIENT Robert Jan van Pelt and Miriam Greenbaum | ARCHITECT TEAM Paul Dowling, Catherine Dowling, Henry Dowling | STRUCTURAL Blackwell | CONTRACTOR BUILD  (Paul Dowling) | STUDENTS Mark Clubine, Joshua Giovinazzo, Magnus Glennie, Joshua MacDonald, Sarah Mason, Ethan Paddock, Salman Rauf, Yannik Sigouin, Conrad Speckert, Jonathan Subendran, Levi Van Weerden, Colin Williams | AREA 43 m2 (library); 27 m2 (new addition to residence)  | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION December 2021