House Arresting

It’s probably safe to say that some of the more interesting architectural practices in existence today are led by individuals who combine professional practice with teaching and academic life. The Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative is no exception, with Marc Boutin enjoying the best of both worlds in balancing academic pursuits as an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design with practice as the principal and founder of the Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative (MBAC). A small design studio that actively explores cultural issues related to the contemporary city, MBAC is involved in a broad spectrum of projects of varying scales, but a significant portion of the practice centres on residential design.

Here, four houses illustrate an ongoing process that the collaborative continues to evolve, and through which a narrative can be traced. The conceptual drive behind these houses is the notion of anticipatory infrastructure or an open-ended formal neutrality in the design, an imprintability that accepts rather than dictates the activity within. This conscious neutrality is like a blank canvas, and the architecture becomes a conduit for the understanding of phenomena rather than a mere representation of it. Having moved to Calgary over a decade ago, Boutin has been struck by the potency and dynamism of the endless prairie sky. He describes it as a living thing, the shifts in light, shade and colour that have a transformative effect on architecture. To maximize this expression of Western Canadian climactic phenomena, Boutin has employed an intentionally restrained formal strategy of orthogonal geometries, planar elements, and simple overlapping volumes, in keeping with elemental Corbusian gestures of open floor plans with double-height living spaces and large expanses of glazing. In Boutin’s view, the dictatorial constraints of an overwrought, fetished and convoluted architecture do not permit the subtle unfolding of environmental phenomena and the natural rhythms of human activity.

Located on 72 acres of pristine land dotted with fir and pine trees, the Frame House is a family home perched on a ridge above the town of Invermere, British Columbia. As its name would suggest, the house in essence operates as a massive frame capturing the spectacular and majestic view of the mountains. There is an obvious dichotomy between the opaque, solid and impervious quality at the rear of the house and the completely open transparency of the front, as it turns its back to the noise and traffic of the highway to the north while celebrating the landscape to the south, encouraging visual and physical interaction with the outdoors through an operable glazed faade. Unlike the houses of Canadian practitioners Ian MacDonald and the Patkaus, the house makes no attempt to embed itself into its site as an organic outcropping: instead, it proudly stands as an object in the landscape, presenting a monolithic and powerful statement in its rugged natural context.

In fulfilling the clients’ desire for a house that brings the family together, MBAC’s design solution offers a straightforward plan with sufficient openness and flexibility to accept change and adaptability over time. The design also draws on the imprintability notion, creating a neutral background that draws meaning through the continuously shifting conditions of site and place. Conceptually, three formal gestures define the project: after careful analysis of the property, a cut into the ground establishes the siting of the house; a hard landscaping surface forms a “liner” for the project, acting as a threshold between interior and exterior space while strategically positioning outdoor recreational spaces to receive the sun; and lastly, a hovering two-storey trussed frame gathers the program spaces into a single volume, visually connecting them all to the surrounding landscape through the vast glazed curtain wall.

Public and private considerations are explored in the spatial relationships of the house; as such, the master suite is located on the uppermost mezzanine level, overlooking the double-height public living/dining area, and the children’s bedrooms also enjoy a degree of privacy, grouped in a cluster at the eastern wing of the house’s main floor.

Clad in stained cedar siding, the prominence of the frame is enhanced by the deep overhang on the south faade, which permits low winter sun to illuminate and warm the depths of the house in the cold dark months while protecting the interior from excessive solar gain during the summer. Operable windows and skylights provide plenty of natural ventilation, as do the 18-foot-high sliding doors connecting interior and exterior social spaces on both the main and lower levels, which open to the outdoor patio, swimming pool, hot tub and the mountains.

A precursor to the Frame House was the Truss House, which was commissioned as a full-time home for a writer on Pender Island, British Columbia. Incorporating the notion of anticipatory infrastructure, the house was designed with sufficient flexibility to accommodate the writer’s son and her grandchildren during the summer vacation season. From a philosophical desire to explore the relationship between technical and formal ideas, the conceptually intriguing idea of the inhabited truss emerged. The client’s wish to preserve all trees and natural vegetation on this remote site meant a minimally invasive approach and the development of the simplest of structures– four columns support this inhabited truss, lifting the mass off the ground. The seductively clean design speaks clearly of the building’s technical framework and the function of the truss.

Characterized by magnificent arbutus trees, rocky outcroppings and a view of the ocean, the Pacific Northwest landscape is acknowledged in this project, and view-framing devices are developed throughout. Sectionally, three data are addressed in the design: the contained upper volume is focused on the distant view of the ocean; clerestory windows and a louvered skin horizontally frame the verticality of the tree trunks on three sides of the ground floor; and the fourth elevation is oriented towards one giant arbutus tree in particular, while also directly engaging the immediate ground cover of rock, bark, moss, water and earth.

Sadly, though the project was never built, the wood model and drawings featured here are illustrative of the rigour that MBAC applies to the design process. For the Truss House, the process included an impressive array of tectonic study diagrams, site plan analyses and sectional drawings that serve to clarify the conceptual intent underlying the design. Furthermore, in a time when firms rely more and more on increasingly sophisticated software programs that result in strangely synthetic renderings of buildings, the collaborative still builds cardboard and wood study models, not only as an effective communication device for clients but as an authentic way of developing a process from which the real effects of light, shadow and form emerge. Moreover, the monochromatic qualities of the models retain and convey the purity of form most effectively, particularly in the increasingly complex formal strategies employed in the subtractive carving-out process to create solids and voids, positive and negative space, and the integrative relationships between interior and exterior.

This subtractive manipulation is seen in the Sims House, located in an inner-city Calgary neighbourhood. Designed for a couple and their two children, the house was conceived as a box containing private spaces for family life on the top floor while also incorporating more extroverted spaces in the main-floor program. Consequently, the volume is manipulated through a subtractive and sometimes additive process, where strategically placed erosions and extrufrAme sions in the form create visual connections and linkages between the spaces. Devices like the s
kylit double-height atrium over the dining area bring light deep into the interior of the house, and strategically placed openings create framed views of the enclosed gardens and connections to the vivid and constantly changing sky.

Stacking the larger comparatively solid mass of the second-storey box on top of the smaller transparent one effectively frees up additional public space underneath, creating three walled gardens, one at the front of the house and one at the rear, and a sizeable south-facing courtyard garden running parallel to the length of the house. As the faades of the ground floor are primarily glazed, its parameters appear dematerialized, further contributing to the illusion of a hovering or levitating upper-floor volume, while also increasing the connection between interior and exterior space.

As Calgary’s building costs were rapidly escalating during the period of the house’s construction, any extraneous features were stripped from the design. MBAC’s strict adherence to the established budget meant a brutally straightforward design, the result of which is “a ruthless expression of the house,” according to Boutin. Nevertheless, the house reads as an elegant composition whose simplicity of form is enhanced by a sophisticated and contrasting materiality of concrete, wood, glass and fabric.

Located in the Elboya neighbourhood in southwest Calgary, the Mahallati Lazar House represents, in many ways, the culmination of the formal subtractive strategy employed in many of the earlier houses. While the project has already broken ground, completion is not anticipated until late next year. Where budget constraints kept the Sims House fairly simple and straightforward, the volumetric manipulation in the Mahallati Lazar House is somewhat more complex. It is also the most evolved in terms of material use, exploration and strategy: instead of wood cladding, concrete panel not only wraps the house but folds into it, creating strategically eroded voids that connect the interior spaces to the front and rear yards, and again to the sky. In a complementary gesture, wood millwork has been designed to integrate with the concrete folds, fur- ther delineating the house’s interior spaces, pulling the project into a cohesive whole. MBAC have artfully composed opaque and transparent faades that accommodate both privacy concerns and the clients’ desire for abundant natural light.

The home is designed for a family of four, with two busy professional parents. Unconventionally, the house is not viewed as a transitional residence with a view towards downsizing and relocation at retirement, but as a house in which the owners can age in place, and where the functions of the spaces within will morph accordingly. The anticipatory infrastructure was established with the clients early on in the project, and diagrams indicate how the spaces will change over time. The crystallization of this idea happened several years earlier, when, as the winner of the Prix de Rome in Architecture in 2002, Boutin’s experience of living with his family in an apartment in Rome’s Trastevere district taught him valuable lessons in spatial transformation. Comprised of four large equally sized rooms, the apartment enjoyed a variety of view orientations and qualities of light. The democratic quality of the spaces possessed an implied flexibility, where the work studio and bedroom also functioned as playrooms for Boutin’s three young children, and where the living room also accommodated dining functions for the family. Boutin learned that migration across spaces and temporally variable uses were feasible if the spaces were designed properly, taking into account size, orientation and infrastructure. A spectrum of spaces–from social to public to private–can therefore accommodate shifting needs.

Consequently, flexibility, imprintability, and a gregarious generosity of space is designed into the Mahallati Lazar House from the very outset. Twenty years hence, once the children are grown and the clients become empty nesters, the downstairs zone currently identified for work functions will absorb more general living functions, while the additional bedrooms upstairs can become a work space. The intent is that given the open-ended flexibility of spatial use, people will be able to imprint themselves on and take ownership of the architecture, rather than the other way around.

The work of the Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative represents another approach to Canadian architecture that is perhaps less site-obsessed than other prominent boutique architecture firms. In contrast to the sexy manipulations of section so prevalent in the previous decade, Boutin’s approach is more universal in its quest for an architecture that behaves as a catalyst for human activity and life, an architecture that is not finite or prescriptive, but one that accepts constantly shifting functions and meanings.cA

Mahallati + Lazar House, Calgary, Alberta

Client Houman Mahallati and Drina Lazar

Architect Team Marc Boutin, Mauricio Rosa, Jerry Hacker, Mike Deboer, Sean Knight, Ron Choe

Atructural Grant Structural Engineering

Interiors Johnson And Associates Interior Design

Contractor Rawlyk Developments

Area 3,600 ft2

Completion November 2009


Frame House, Invermere, British Columbia

Client Withheld

Architect Team Marc Boutin, Mauricio Rosa, Jerry Hacker, Mike Deboer, Sean Knight, Ron Choe

Structural Cascade Engineering Group

Contractor Norcon Developments

Area 4,500 Ft2

Completion April 2008


Truss House, Pender Island, British Columbia

Client Tom Jurenka

Architect Team Marc Boutin, Tony Leong, Dave Golden

Area 2,300 Ft2


Sims Residence, Calgary, Alberta

Client Chris and Lane Sims

Architect Team Marc Boutin, Mauricio Rosa, Jerry Hacker, Mike Deboer, Ron Choe, Sean Knight

Structural Moffat Architecture + Engineering

Landscape Planta Landscaping

Contractor Meadow Sage Builders

Area 2,500 ft2

Completion April 2008