The Orient, Expressed

PROJECT GenY House, Ottawa, Ontario
ARCHITECT N45 Architecture Inc.
TEXT Sarah Brown
PHOTOS Doublespace Photography

The design process began seven years ago with a blank notebook. In it, Robert Matthews began sketching initial notions for what would become GenY House, a striking Japanese-inspired pied-à-terre that is remarkable for its compactness–just 650 square feet of usable space. While he pondered the challenges of designing for an extremely narrow lot, Matthews filled his book with observations, snippets of poetry, ideas gleaned from reading and travels, and pages and pages of drawings. Finally, in late 2012, construction began. As the house took shape, Matthews, principal at N45 Architecture in Ottawa, saw all of the ideas in that jam-packed notebook come together as a cohesive whole, a synthesis of his years of ruminations on privacy and space.

Located on a suburban lot just a few minutes’ walk from the Ottawa River, GenY House (so named because Matthews posited that the style and scale would appeal to Generation Y buyers) is the consequence of a zoning dilemma. The new house is built on a property that is already home to a 1920s cottage, with zoning that allows for a double. Initially, Matthews had considered taking down the rental property and constructing two townhouses in its place, but the idea of destroying the original house was unfathomable. But, because the cottage sat at a 45-degree angle on the property, it took up a lot of land, leaving only an eight-foot-wide strip on which to build. The challenge was on. “I knew it could be done and it could be comfortable,” says Matthews. “I’d been to Japan and seen a lot of tiny places. Plus, I knew, philosophically, that my wife and I really only lived in the living room and kitchen of our current house.” 

The finished house is just eight feet wide at the front (flaring to 12 feet at the back) and incorporates a number of smart details and architectural devices that make it feel truly spacious. South-facing porches on both floors almost double the size of the house so that, from the street, GenY appears much larger than it really is. Custom-built cedar screens glide back and forth, allowing Matthews to control both the views and the amount of sunlight entering the house. In summer, those porches act as additional rooms. Indeed, Matthews plans to add a curtain track on the upper porch, allowing him to hang a mosquito net and use it as a breezy second bedroom. Bay windows in the living room and bedroom also make those rooms feel larger, adding two feet to each and connecting the interior and exterior spaces.

The kitchen, which is situated at the narrow end of the house, is a wonder of compact design, with Matthews incorporating all manner of tricks to ensure five feet of counter space. When prep room is needed, a custom-built cutting board nestles over the two-burner stove, while a Corian insert fits seamlessly into the sink. Other appliances include a combination convection oven and microwave, an apartment-sized dishwasher and a compact refrigerator. “I have prepared a dinner here and–as long as you’re organized–there’s plenty of space,” says Matthews, though he admits that he sometimes wishes for just a bit more room to work. In his original sketches, the kitchen was intended to fit along the longer side wall. 

Also placed in the narrow front section is the second-floor bathroom, a great example of big design in a tiny space. Matthews kept the look clean and bright, anchoring the room with woven grass-textured tiles on the floor and along the main wall of the bath. A deep soaker tub with granite surround is a stand-in for the Japanese tub Matthews had initially doodled in his notebook. Though he was loathe to set aside that first concept, he was concerned that a wooden tub would require too much care. A handmade vessel sink with a fish motif, created by a Nova Scotia artist the couple discovered while travelling, sits atop custom cabinetry.  

When Matthews named the house, he was imagining how this pared-down design–modern, affordable and harmonious in its simplicity–would appeal to young people living mobile lives. “I think many of us are intrigued by the idea of living in a space like this,” Matthews explains. “It reflects a simpler lifestyle we have dreamt of but don’t necessarily know how to express.” Strangely, perhaps GenY House holds even more appeal to an older clientele weighed down by the accumulations of life. For his part, Matthews isn’t quite ready to downsize to the extent needed to move into his house full-time. He and his wife maintain their current residence in rural Ottawa, using GenY House for entertaining and when they stay in town for cultural events. It also continues to inspire Matthews to jot down ideas in his sketchbook. He’s currently finalizing plans for a compact Japanese-style garden sanctuary alongside GenY House. CA

Sarah Brown is an independent writer and editor based in Ottawa. Her specialties include design, architecture, gardening, and food and drink.

Client Mary Whyte | Architect Team Robert Matthews | Mechanical Ottawa Air Design Ltd. | Electrical Keith’s Electric | Civil Kollaard Associates Engineers | Landscape Blanchard Landscape & Design | Contractor Lionhead Management Ltd. | Area 640 ft2 | Budget $247,000 | Completion August 2013