Ma Maison

PROJECT La Maison-Atelier du Moine Urbain, Montreal, Quebec
ARCHITECT/DESIGNER Gabriel Rousseau architecte and Mario Lafrenais
TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Marcel Mueller

Live/work scenarios are becoming increasingly commonplace in North American urban centres, allowing artists, designers and those engaged in creative occupations to enjoy a seamless transition between private and professional life, thereby avoiding lengthy, stressful and tangled commutes to the office. A noteworthy addition to this hybrid building type of home and studio is the Maison Atelier du Moine Urbain (Urban Monk’s House and Workshop), located in the heart of Montreal’s vibrant Plateau neighbourhood.

The client, Mario Lafrenais, is a multidisciplinary artist who works primarily in stone; called Moine Urbain, his company produces–among other things–stone sinks for residential and commercial applications. Managing to convey both a rough-hewn quality and yet also refined beauty, the award-winning Moine Urbain products have attracted a variety of high-profile clients. Lafrenais had owned a residential property on rue St-Dominique for about a decade, where he lives with his partner and two children. Seeking to integrate his stonework studio with his home, he commissioned architect Gabriel Rousseau to design an adjacent workshop on the empty parking lot next to the two-storey house.

A relatively modest addition of 783 square feet, the new two-storey structure abuts the existing residence and while complementary, makes no attempt to mimic the old red brick façade. Instead, a thoroughly contemporary material vocabulary announces itself through concrete block, large expanses of glazing, and a striking pair of huge wooden front doors–salvaged and reclaimed from an old convent. Still, the new structure responds to the datum lines of the existing streetscape, contributing a respectful and remarkably urbane presence to the neighbourhood.

The ground floor of the building is devoted exclusively to workshop/studio functions, while the second-floor mezzanine physically connects to the existing house through a newly created portal in its former exterior wall. The mezzanine expands the family’s residential functions, and has become a de facto living room and meditation space, which overlooks the peaceful courtyard and back garden.

The major impetus for the project was the client’s desire to build to the greatest degree of sustainability possible, and Lafrenais himself was substantially involved in the design and construction process, relying heavily on Rousseau’s design skills and professional expertise. 

Effective natural passive ventilation was achieved through a variety of methods, making air-conditioning unnecessary even during Montreal’s hot, humid summers. Cross-ventilation is encouraged through an entire wall of north-facing full-height glass windows  that open to the back garden on both the ground and second floors. This abundance of glazing provides the added benefit of allowing optimal north light to penetrate deep into the interior spaces, reducing the need for artificial lighting. The decision to incorporate an overlooking mezzanine on the second floor results in a greater spatial dynamic within the workshop, but also permits hot air to rise and be expelled through the skylight opening in the roof. 

Eight solar panels were salvaged from a former government building and installed on the rooftop, which enable solar energy to be captured and subsequently used to radiantly heat the concrete floors in winter and also to heat the pool in more temperate months when necessary. Even the wood-burning stove, which is used to provide additional heating in the cooler seasons, was salvaged from a demolition yard.

The recycling of materials evidences the most visually obvious gesture of sustainability principles at work. In addition to the salvaged entry doors, solar panels and wood-burning stove, the building also incorporates reclaimed light fixtures and wooden structural beams. The hemlock panelling that sheathes the interior walls comes from trees felled during a major storm, which were cut into planks and planed by artisanal methods. All of this represents a most commendable effort in recycling and reuse, but these timeworn artifacts also contribute a most evocative spirit to this modest project. 

Lafrenais’s talents are not confined to his stone creations. After the workshop was completed, he alone undertook the design and construction of the harmoniously landscaped back garden–perhaps the most overtly striking feature of the project. As the scale of the new workshop was fairly restrained, the outdoor space left over was substantial enough to form a sizeable private courtyard containing multilayered wood decks, verdant plantings, and a small swimming pool. A sense of peace and serenity is achieved in the multiple zones of the garden: ivy scales the vertical surfaces, softening any hard edges of this urban court, and the layered overlapping deck platforms create numerous seating areas and optimal display opportunities for the designed stone objects.

Fittingly, the project was honoured earlier this year with a jury mention in the recycling/conversion category of the 2011 Awards of Excellence in Architecture from the Ordre des architects du Québec. There is undoubtedly merit in its conscious pursuit of holistic sustainability, but the Maison Atelier du Moine Urbain offers impressions of a life beyond itself. Probably the greatest experiential impact is found in its poetic material vocabulary of reclaimed materials, the potency of which offers fleeting glimpses of past lives and of another time. CA

Client Mario Lafrenais
Design Team Gabriel Rousseau, Mario Lafrenais
Landscape Mario Lafrenais
Contractor Mario Lafrenais
Area 783 ft2 addition; 3,473 ft2 original house
Budget N/A
Completion Summer 2010