Canadian Architect


Capitalizing On The Basics

An Ottawa Architect Designs With His Clients' Wishes In Mind While Eschewing Fussy Details For A Simple, Well-Crafted Palette Of Materials Resulting In Two Successful Residential Projects.

April 1, 2008
by Janine Debanne





“Ottawa is sticky on ‘style’,” notes architect John Donkin. Indeed, it can certainly seem as if some Committee of Adjustment mandated the neo-Victorian and neo-Tudor designs that dominate Ottawa’s neighbourhoods. The vanguard modernist residential architecture of the National Capital Region (NCC) is, in contrast, either almost wholly confined to 1950s and ’60s-era forested suburbs, or hidden deep in the Gatineau Hills. Donkin, who graduated from Carleton University in 1986, is one of a small number of Ottawa architects who pursues a progressive design language while working primarily within the city limits. His casually resolved “as it is” approach is informed by prior studies in sociology and by stints building barns and houses. The houses he builds are, remarkably for Ottawa, quite unburdened by conventional architectural expectations. Two houses, in distinct and even contrasting neighbourhoods, demonstrate his responsiveness to site and client while cultivating a modern formal and constructive language.

Mechanicsville, historically a working-class neighbourhood, is where Donkin built a 1,700-square-foot house in 2005 for his client Cynthia Callard. Like all of Ottawa’s neighbourhoods located in the core of the city, housing prices are becoming increasingly expensive. Rental properties, group homes and rooming houses are still present alongside well-appointed single-family residences. Only a progressively minded Ottawan would choose to invest and settle in Mechanicsville, an area where Donkin’s unabashedly unconventional project met with no resistance at all–either from neighbours or the City. The house, with its strong elemental volumes and bold cladding (using both metal and rough-cut unfinished cedar siding), blends into the colourful housing mix: its milled-steel front faade, which has now turned a rusty red, is at first indistinguishable from the local brick structures.

The Callard House unfolds alongside a linear sideyard garden graced with southern exposure and a mature maple tree. The client requested a house with the direct and open spatial qualities found in everyday commercial architecture or in converted churches. “Why aren’t houses built like Mac’s Milk?” she asked Donkin. The client’s attitude allowed him to design in the way he prefers: in an open-ended and common-sense conversation with the site, materials and costs, and with a current language of construction. Donkin, who often asks himself, “Why does outside feel better than inside?” pursues an architecture of immediacy. The resulting house was conceived as a single, open 16-by-29-foot living space flanked by a bedroom and an office. It is essentially a 65-foot-long slab-on-grade box with a sloped roof transected by a second living suite that perches atop the main house. The 10- foot cantilever of the Galvalume-clad upper dwelling doubles as a carport, shelters the entrance, and marks a transition from the street to the private realm beyond. The upper self-contained unit is ready for the client when her mother moves in below at some point in the future; until then the space will be rented. In this farsighted provision, social pragmatism meets architectural planning.

On a sunny winter’s day, the architecture’s intentions are immediately recognizable: light streams in through the generously fenestrated south wall; a heated slab floor warms the feet; and a couch is positioned to survey the room and overlook the outdoors, providing the house with a

central location. An open kitchen–finished with “unimportant plywood” and shiny red Ikea cabinetry–strongly punctuates the room. On the floor along the window, hibiscus, oleander, and bougainvillea plants, entrusted for the winter by a friend, thrive in the February light. In contrast to the constant sound of heating systems in most homes, Callard, who has a background in music, prizes her home’s silence. Donkin understands that winter in Ottawa is no small affair, so he organized the house as a receptor of light and warmth in which to quietly enjoy the season. The filter-like quality of the side and rear faades underscores social engagements. Callard shares her backyard (as well as garden work, equipment and meals) with immediate neighbours who, like her, are all “women of a certain age.” The robust materials, modest scale, and strong inside-outside connection uniquely situate this house in its corner of Ottawa, facilitating communal life.

Donkin had greater scope to develop his domestic modern language in renovating a builder-designed Modernist house dating from 1958 in the affluent Glebe district, a 10-minute drive from Mechanicsville. The 2,220-square-foot Freen house, completed in 2006, sits between two embassies on Clemow Avenue, a renowned Ottawa street that terminates at the Rideau Canal and overlooks a park maintained by the NCC. Donkin’s clients, a couple returning downtown from suburban Kanata after raising a family, had previously lived in a restored Eichler house in Palo Alto in the early 1990s, and wanted a home with similar qualities–in particular, fluid spaces that were open to interpretation. The owner’s real estate agent recommended Donkin, and again, the architect’s open-mindedness was matched by that of the client. Together they asked questions such as, “who here is in love with the stone?” and decided to remove a heavy and inconveniently located fireplace–a gesture unthinkable for more conventional owners. And in less competent hands, the whole house might have just been demolished.

The original building provided a solid starting point, but, as Donkin describes it, “the designer had seen Modernism and knew it was out there, but didn’t quite get it.” The house lacked a strong visual connection to its site and had a symmetrical faade of picture windows making the interior static. Donkin began by gutting the interior to the framing and stripping the exterior down to the sheathing. He recomposed the south faade asymmetrically and used floor-to-ceiling glass instead of punched windows. This created a more dramatic diagonal visual path from the living room across the site. Inside, these new openings organize the living room and a conservatory-like sitting space in the southwest corner. The view now terminates at an elegant row of houses some 200 feet away. In addition, Donkin clarified circulation by boldly relocating the staircase from its position in the southwest corner of the house. The new open-riser steel stair, pulled inward in plan, now leads to a central point in the upper floor, leaving room for both an office and a master bedroom along the south side. The ground floor still consists of the same living spaces as before, but is now reconfigured as visually interconnected zones linking the street to the rear yard. Donkin’s fascination with continuous spaces is evident in every corner of the house. Rooms do not contain, but rather terminate at distant points, giving the house a scale far greater in perception than in measured reality.

Donkin is committed to a language of construction sympathetic to the builder’s tasks and difficulties. He eschews precious modernist details like frameless doors and windows for simpler forms of the same design ideas. To promote greater connection between inside and out, he uses a clever assembly of simple finger-jointed pine straps around all doors and windows–in the Freen House, this frame is recessed while in the Callard House, it sits on the wall surface. Details like these kept the budget of the Freen renovation under $180 per square foot and that of the Callard House under $140, budgets considered reasonable despite Ottawa’s typically inflated construction rates.

In fact, progressive architecture in Ottawa has never depended so much on clients’ wealth as on their desire to realize new way
s of dwelling. This is as true today as it was in the 1950s. Neither the Callard nor the Freen House are typical Ottawa houses. Their market values strongly differ due primarily to the respective values of their locations, but their construction is actually very similar in spirit. Callard, who is aware of the Freen House, reflects, “We both paid what we could, and we both got what we wanted.” Continuous spaces, thoughtful seasonal transformations, well considered dimensions, configurations that resonate with the client’s life are, for Donkin, the pleasures of architecture–and they are not determined by budget. The directness of Donkin’s work recalls a more adventuresome time in the Capital Region, and brings it back downtown.

Janine Debann is an Associate Professor at the Carleton University School of Architecture.







AREA 1,700

BUDGET $240,000







AREA 2,400

BUDGET $435,000


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