This is a story about reinvention—taking conventional ideas about how living spaces should be organized and turning them on their heads
Carleton University graduates have used skill and imagination to transform the spaces they encounter
In New York City, a playground takes shape on a school rooftop. In Ottawa, a backyard becomes the setting for a garden-shed-sized office, while a plot of land in Darfield, B.C., is transformed by an earthship. in Pickering, Ont., a yurt becomes integral to a travelling art show. Busy downtown Toronto, meanwhile, is the chosen spot for a combination office and home planned as a flexi-space
Celebrating inspired design
Case Study: Play Space
In jam-packed New York City, where green space is scarce, Peter Pivko designs rooftop playgrounds so that schoolchildren can play outside
In Canada, if the student population outgrows the school, administrators simply toss up a portable—or 10. In New York City, where space is at a premium, it’s not so easy. “Here, we’ve got to design schools vertically,” explains architect Peter Pivko, BArch/78. “That’s how the rooftop playground was conceived.” The open-air playground is a fairly new specialty. Less than a decade ago, teachers simply ferried their pupils to the nearest public park or playground for an outdoor gym class. But now, with traffic even more chaotic and sidewalks crammed, on-site playgrounds are a must. Pivko, who designs a couple of rooftop play areas each year, says no two are exactly alike. “In a city like New York, there are different challenges with every project—you’re dealing with space constraints, budgets, the specific needs of each school, and NYC School Construction Authority rules.”
The Project: This 3,000-square-foot early childhood playground (for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students) is located at Washington Heights Academy, a Manhattan school with a student population of close to 600 in pre-kindergarten through Grade 8.
The Location: The playground is four or five steps above street level and sits on top of the school cafeteria. NYC School Construction Authority rules stipulate that pre-kindergarten play areas must be located at ground level. There are two access points—through a door that opens straight into the school building or through a gated door that opens to the sidewalk. A second 6,000-square-foot rooftop space for older children is located three floors up, on top of the gymnasium. Fully fenced (including a wire mesh “roof”), it is designed more as a giant court, which allows older kids to use it for ball sports.
The Details: Pivko notes that the actual play structure at this site is exactly the same as those one might find in a park. The difference is below the ubiquitous rubber tiles, where an inverted roofing system allows water to seep between the tiles and quickly drain away through rainwater outlets.
Case Study: The Solo Space
Architect Kevin Deevey re-imagines the home office, designing a self-contained and cost-effective workspace the size of a garden shed
Like many brilliant ideas, this one came about out of necessity. Ottawa-based architect Kevin Deevey’s home office was about to become a nursery for his expected child. Inspired by the romantic precedents set by such creative notables as Steve Jobs (who got his start in a garage workspace) and Henry David Thoreau (who philosophized from his simple cabin at Walden Pond), Deevey, BArch/91, set about designing a stand-alone home office in his backyard. The original manhut, a term coined by his spouse, Elaine Yee, BArch/92, was built 12 years ago. It was initially used as a backyard office, though Deevey has since moved to a more conventional workplace as his practice has expanded. “You can’t fit too many colleagues in a 100-square-foot shed,” he jokes.
Deevey viewed the building of the original manhut as a test case of sorts: a design exploration that experiments with the English tradition of the garden shed as studio space. In countries where space is at a premium, people have been building small and efficient sheds in their backyards for years. In Canada, with its bigger yards, people tend to put an extension on their house when they want to expand. But while even a manhut-sized addition would be priced at $70,000 or more, a stand-alone manhut comes in at $20,000. And in Ottawa, at least, zoning bylaws state that if it’s less than 100 square feet, your manhut is considered to be a shed. In other words, you can go right ahead and build, no permits needed.
THE SECOND MANHUT
Filmmaker Chris Mullington worked with Deevey to perfect his manhut, which was built four years ago. At the time, Mullington was paying just over $1,000 a month for studio space, so the backyard manhut was an economical option. He loves the large windows, which face his house, allowing him to feel connected to his family even on deadline days, when he might spend 15 hours in the studio. And when inspiration strikes in the middle of the night, Mullington says he can simply walk over to the manhut and get designing without disturbing his sleeping family.
PERFECTING THE MODEL
While Deevey’s manhut is clad in plywood, Mullington’s studio boasts maintenance-free fibre cement panels. “There were many things I learned while building my own manhut that I then used in Chris’s design,” Deevey explains. The high-efficiency door and windows make this a four-season studio, with sunlight and the heat given off by Mullington’s computer equipment providing enough warmth to keep the small space cozy. In fact, Mullington says, he turns on the radiant floor heat only when temperatures dip below -15 C.
THE IDEAL TENANT
The manhut tends to appeal to introverts, says Deevey—thoughtful, artistic types who want to be close to home but need a private space in which to create. “It’s quiet; it’s peaceful. It’s also an expression of economy—you’re optimizing the space you need. In other words, you’re the type of person who feels that it’s not necessarily the space that’s important, but what you do within it.”
Case Study: Eco Space
Sandra Burkholder and Chris Newton put their green principles into practice, building their own version of the “radically sustainable” structure known as an earthship
When they began their earthship in 2009, they never imagined it would become a tourist attraction. In recent months, Sandra Burkholder, BJ/89, and her husband, Chris Newton, have had to start turning down requests to tour their handmade earthship in Darfield, B.C., north of Kamloops. Though they’re keen to educate people on their eco-friendly house-in-progress, they have three teenagers to consult. “Our kids are old enough now that they’re more aware of how great this house is—how special it is—but at the same time, they want to have some privacy,” says Burkholder. Still, it’s little wonder that such an unusual house, with its “radically sustainable” raison d’être and adventurous recycled exterior, has generated buzz.
Although they’ve been around since the 1970s, earthships are still a novelty. First developed by New Mexico-based architect Michael Reynolds, these passive solar houses are meant to be environmentally friendly and self-sustaining, made with the likes of old tires rammed full of dirt, as well as pop cans and bottles stacked using cob (an adobe-like mixture of clay, sand, straw, water, and earth). Burkholder and Newton studied Reynolds’ designs and writings and knew his model fit with the lifestyle they had become committed to living.
In 2007, the couple, who at the time were running a busy log house company, decided it was time to take a voluntary step back and evaluate their lives. “We wanted to spend more time with the kids, and we wanted to live in a house that matched our values—a house built without debt and one that recognized the importance of addressing environmental sustainability,” says Burkholder.
They wound up their business and took six months to research and decide on their next move. Earthships, they determined, fit their criteria, rolling a whole host of sustainable concepts into one building model. Because they had designed and sold log houses, they knew how to work within building codes, and Newton, an engineer by training, could work his way through all the technical aspects of earthship design and construction. They began building in 2009, moved in in December 2012, and continue to work on the interior finishing and long-term plans (a grey-water retrieval system and extensive food gardens, for example) in their spare time. “We don’t want the earthship process to control our lives,” explains Burkholder. “We try to take on projects one at a time and leave room for fun.” Though their lives are busy—their kids are home-schooled and Newton works part-time as a network management consultant, Sandra as a freelance bookkeeper—the couple sees a long-term future in which they might hold workshops and consult on sustainable building projects. For now, they’re taking it one day at a time while trying to keep up with all those tour and interview requests.
Case Study: Mobile Space
Known as Yurtas, the portable shelters designed by Marcin Padlewski and Anissa Szeto have been used as cottages, studios, rustic shelters and, most recently, as performance spaces in a travelling art extravaganza
Since meeting at Carleton University, Marcin Padlewski, BArch/97, and Anissa Szeto, BArch/99, have designed as a team. “We’re what you would call ‘serial entrepreneurs,’” Szeto jokes, noting that their passion for exploration has led them to create both small (exquisite light fixtures) and big (the Yurta) products that they have then successfully marketed on a larger scale.
The Yurta came into being about nine years ago as the couple experimented with portable dwellings inspired by nomadic peoples. They originally envisaged their lightweight structures being used for disaster relief but didn’t feel comfortable working in the corporate world inhabited by big international agencies. Their first client was a hostel owner who bought their initial three prototypes to rent to visitors.
For the past six or seven years, business has been steady, with about 30 Yurtas being sold each year. While most of their buyers are private campground owners and individuals looking to set up a comfortable temporary home on a cottage property, some Padlewski and Szeto clients have used the Yurta as a yoga studio, a cozy change hut (set up beside a hockey rink), an art studio, even a full-time home. Easy to set up and dismantle (it takes about two hours once you get the hang of it), the Yurta fits easily into a minivan or four-by-eight trailer.
For their part, the couple alternately uses their personal Yurta, set up on their rural property in the Lanark Highlands, as a guest house, summer bedroom, and gallery space. This past September, the Yurta received huge exposure across the United States when seven of the structures were used as mobile performance spaces in a travelling art show that crossed the country by train.
The Yurta Travels Across America
Organized by American multimedia artist Doug Aitken, Station to Station was an ambitious travelling art show that linked creators from the worlds of art, music, food, literature and film. Their mode of transport? A train, designed as a kinetic light sculpture, that crossed the United States in September, stopping in nine cities for a series of site-specific performances. Aitken ordered seven Yurtas for the journey, each custom-made and altered by various artists. The nomadic dwellings were turned into art pieces, performance spaces, and intimate galleries, each evolving as the train journeyed across the country.
The process: Padlewski and Szeto got the call in May and from there began a hectic two-month back-and-forth process to design seven completely customized Yurtas—four to be refurbished by artists, two for use by Station to Station sponsor Levi’s for its events, and one to be employed as a slow-food demo kitchen. “Everything was custom, from the fabrics and colours to the placement of doors,” explains Padlewski. “It was crazy and busy but also a lot of fun.” The orders went out in July, and within a month, the Yurtas were being shipped across the United States so that the artists could further customize them before the September Station to Station launch.
The setup: Padlewski and Patrick Ladisa (the third member of the Yurta team) travelled to New York City for three days in early September to teach the three-person Station to Station crew how to put up and take down the Yurtas. The Yurta duo stayed in New York for the first “happening,” as it was called in Station to Station parlance, then headed back to Canada. “They begged us to stay, but they had to sink or swim—if it was five or six years ago, then maybe,” says Padlewski with a laugh. “But now I’ve got too much going on to just stop everything and travel across America.”
The journey: Mobile micro-architecture at its finest—nine stops from New York to California over 23 days. Padlewski and Szeto never imagined this use for the Yurta when they began planning it, but that’s the beauty of flexible design.
Case Study: Combined Space
Andre D’Elia and Meg Graham ditch the commute with a clever renovation that has given them a spacious home above their office
Andre D’Elia, BArch/93, and Meg Graham are the principals behind the Toronto-based superkül architecture firm. They’re also a husband-and-wife team with two small children. Perhaps it only makes sense, then, that they work and play in the same building. When the couple bought a rundown two-storey storefront building on Dundas Street West in 2005, they did so with the plan to renovate it completely, turning the basement and ground floor into office space for their busy design practice and the upper level into home space. They added a third floor to the two-storey building, creating a spacious house on the upper two floors—room to sprawl a bit once they had children.
The couple chose the busy thoroughfare of Dundas West for the practical reason that buildings along the strip are zoned for mixed commercial and residential use, but they now love it equally for the neighbourhood. “It’s a remarkably active spot, busy and interesting,” says D’Elia, who jokes that their four-year-old daughter regards the living room window, which faces Dundas, as her personal television set. Graham says they also appreciate the simplicity of having office and home in one spot. “We’re in the unique position that when one of us has to work late, the other can just walk upstairs to look after the kids and cook dinner.”
Over the past seven years, the couple has undertaken a number of further renovations and additions, including expanding into the backyard area, as their firm (which now numbers 14) and their family (which now numbers four) has grown. “When we bought this building, we anticipated each phase of expansion,” D’Elia explains, “so we’ve been able to renovate each time with minimal impact at the office or at home.”
On the neighbourhood …
Meg: We’re at Dundas and Roncesvalles. It’s an area full of coffee shops, independent grocers, small businesses—and there are lots of young kids. It’s a thriving neighbourhood in the midst of change—great for the business and our family.
Andre: It’s also a 10-minute walk from High Park and a 25-minute walk from the lake, with three transit lines and the subway within walking distance.
On living and working in one location …
Meg: For a young firm, it’s an ideal arrangement. We have two children [a four-year-old and a four-month-old], and in these early years of the practice and our family, I can’t imagine anything better.
On having their daughter pop into the office …
Meg: It’s wonderful to get to see our daughter when she comes home from school. She can tell us about her day before she goes upstairs to the babysitter.
Andre: It’s amazing watching her interact with the staff. It’s a little break each day—she’s so happy to see everybody, to look at what they’re doing, to chat.
On their favourite aspects of the combined space …
Meg: The integration of our home and office allows for more efficiencies as a family—there’s an ease to organizing our days.
Andre: Living and working in one spot definitely takes out a lot of the stress. And although we live above the shop, the two spaces are quite separate, so work and home are distinct.