Skewing the Square: Parallelogram House, St. Paul, Manitoba
PROJECT Parallelogram House, East St. Paul, Manitoba
ARCHITECT 5468796 Architecture
TEXT Lawrence Bird
PHOTOS 5468796 Architecture (exteriors) and James Brittain (interiors)
The exurban house is a conundrum. What are we to do with the country villa today, as the definition of “country” is complicated by development and a blurring of urban, suburban and rural environments? With Parallelogram House, 5468796 Architecture and their clients propose an inspired response. It takes the form of an understated yet beautiful dwelling, based on a simple, subtly elaborated gesture.
For principal Sasa Radulovic, FRAIC, the approach in any house is to look for the thorny problem essential to the owner and the site. In this case, clients Nolan and Rachel Ploegman commissioned a house for their family of four on an 80-foot-wide site in East St. Paul, northeast of Winnipeg, with a 10-foot zoning offset from side property lines. Perhaps due to personal sensibilities, they wished to avoid ostentation: so they wanted the building to be only one-storey high. This was a tight squeeze for a dwelling that was to offer views to the landscape and room for cars; all while being original and accommodating the richness of family life.
The solution, uncovered over three months of early design conversations, was deceptively simple. The designers took a banal house-form—four walls at right angles with a roof overhead—and sheared it into a parallelogram. Suddenly, a box with 60-foot edges was transformed. While maintaining the same built area (and thus similar construction costs), the rear façade onto the garden increased to almost 85 feet, as did the front façade. This is characteristic of 5468796’s modus operandi: to create space where none existed before.
From this key gesture, a host of design opportunities unfolded. A key challenge was to ensure that the oblique angles and increased expanse of perimeter did not increase the visual mass of the building. A palatte of strategies was deployed to slim the structure’s profile and modulate its edges: 10-foot-wide eaves emphasize the sweeping gesture of the form, downspouts are eliminated to further accentuate the horizontal, and an array of 14-foot-high Corten steel sheets, folded for rigidity—while still appearing supple—extends along the perimeter. Connections with the roof trusses are recessed and hidden above each column, and the roof seemingly hovers above.
Because of the skewed geometry, a cluster of columns was required at the two acute corners of the building, where there was insufficient span to cantilever the trusses (which run perpendicular to the long edges of the structure). Far from limiting the architects, this provided another opportunity to modulate the edge, lending an irregular rhythm to the façade. This is masterfully exploited to eliminate any sense of monotony, and to set up a syncopated rhythm with the surrounding trees. Standing inside, the triangular living space opens up and extends out through white-mullioned glass walls, beneath floating eaves, between Corten columns, and over a concrete verandah and seating area to encompass a broad swath of forest. The owners say that, in the house, nature becomes a family member.
In tune with this sensitivity to the surrounding landscape, principles of sustainable design are integrated throughout. The broad eaves reduce solar gain, a minimal number of trees were removed, and space is efficiently used to maximize the bungalow’s sense of expansiveness.
Inside, the floorplate is organized into living, sleeping, and garage zones. Boundaries between these areas are managed by a free-standing service block, including washrooms, kitchen, pantry and storage. A line of white-painted internal screens provides further division between public and private spaces, and their rhythm and angularity riff on that of the exterior columns. Pale red-oak flooring and millwork complement the weathered patina of the Corten, as does a solid reclaimed-timber table. Elegant but unfussy, these elements bring material solidity to the light and airy space, making it at once graceful and substantial.
These achievements were facilitated by a client who came to the project with considerable experience as a developer. The client’s existing relationships with manufacturers and skilled trades—and the trust that goes along with that—proved crucial to the project. The Ploegmans worked closely with Star Truss, Brunswick Steel and Aabacus Welding to develop the structural system and connections that made the roof and columns work. Most of the trusses are unique, and the complex connections were figured out on-site and in the factory. The owner’s hand-picked trades included All Seasons Carpentry for flooring and millwork, and Wood Anchor for the reclaimed timber table and teak-oil-finished oak front door. In some cases, it still took considerable persuasion to overcome the fear of the new idea. For instance, when the drywaller hesitated at framing the roof’s single aperture—a skylight with a complex geometry—Radulovic stepped in to model it at 1:1 on site, in string.
In section, the angular geometry is carried through in vertical connections: window wells almost 30 feet high punctuate the perimeter, extending down into a full-height basement. This has the impactful effect of nibbling away at the slab edges at key, yet sometimes counter-intuitive locations—in the living area, at the corner of the master bedroom, in the washroom and in the laundry room. Beyond bringing wedges of light into the lower storey, the tall window wells also contribute to the façade’s well-studied and subtle modulation of Corten and rough-sawn western red cedar.
Unlike any of its neighbours, Parallelogram House withdraws both its front door and its triple garage from the street. Rare in a suburban home, the three-car garage does not dominate the façade, but is instead subsumed by an arcade between the wooden wall and Corten columns.
Homes in bedroom communities typically tend toward ostentation: free-standing villas set apart on large lots, in a vague, stuccoed neoclassicism. Given his home’s completely different stance, Nolan Ploegman confesses to occasionally wondering: “ Is my house not grand enough?” This feeling is perhaps an inevitable consequence of choosing, as the owner puts it, to “ go beyond society’s norms” by building a house which is modest as well as expansive, down-to-earth as well as refined.
The square, the right angle, and the grid are some of the fundamental ordering gestures of design. Modern bungalows in Central Canada are among their manifestations: repeating pixels across a gridded Prairie geography. By skewing the basic form of the square—breaking it open and spilling its interior into the landscape, and vice-versa—5468796 has both rethought the house and reformulated the basic unit of low-density exurban development. One wonders how beautiful bedroom communities might be, if consistently designed with such a sensibility.
In this case, success was assured by the close collaboration of an architect and a developer. As Radulovic says of architects, no-one else in the building process has the remit to inventively rethink form in response to constraints. But the builder also matters, if one is to achieve a new take on the setting up of four walls and a roof—the basic gesture of the house.
Lawrence Bird, MRAIC practices in architecture, urban design and the visual arts. He works in Winnipeg for Ager Little Architects.