Split the Difference

Originally published in 

When the plan to add a second story to a century-old Montreal house crumbled due to a weak foundation, architect Marc-André Plasse eked out another 500 square feet with a clever multilevel addition on one side.

Parisien / Raymond Residence

After spending a year in their “new” house—a century-old, 800-square-foot two-bedroom in Montreal’s small but bustling Rosemont neighborhood—Francis Parisien, a marketing director, and Yannick Raymond, an early childhood educator, scraped together enough cash to hire an architect to add a second story and remedy some of the home’s ill-advised 1980s additions. They found Marc-André Plasse, a partner at the firm Naturehumaine, after reading about his work in the local paper, and brought him a tight budget of $175,000. When the initial site analysis determined that the tired foundation simply could not support the extra weight above, Plasse, fueled by the couple’s enthusiasm and determination, conceptualized a way of going out, rather than up.

Meanwhile, Parisien and Raymond’s need for a remodel was growing rapidly: Foster parents to a little girl, the couple hoped to carve out just enough space to give her a solid comfort zone. The house’s previous owner, an elderly woman, had raised five children in the home, so they knew it was doable. But they desperately needed to modernize the layout. “There was no storage, and the backyard was completely paved—the lady used to wash it every week,” says Parisien. “Half of the basement was filled with soil…we still can’t figure that one out.”

For Plasse, the spatial breakthrough came when he found three feet of usable attic space and then discovered that they could build down to ground level and another four feet into the ground. (A thick layer of bedrock made deeper digging impossible.)

“We were left working between the roof up top and the rocks below,” Plasse explains. “We compressed all the new spaces together within those upper and lower limits and began playing with the levels and volumes.”

Plasse’s team gutted the house then tore off its rear wall. There, they built an addition that increases the footprint by just 375 square feet but yields 508 square feet of living space distributed over three levels. From the kitchen in the existing space, three steps lead into the new double-height dining room, its 14-and-a-half-foot ceiling made possible by the extra space at the roofline and a drop down from the original raised foundation to ground level. Another set of treads leads from the dining room into the sunken living room; its ceiling is the floor of the 133-square-foot master bedroom suspended above and accessed through the walk-in closet.

“Our daughter has quickly adapted to our house,” notes Parisien. “She has her own spots—the front room is full of her toys. When we get home, she points out that it’s her house.”

Fit and Finish

Road Tested
To keep costs down, Plasse specified Zig-Zag by Prolam Floors for the kitchen countertop. Typically used as the flooring in transport trucks, the pre-laminated, one-and-three-eighths-inch-thick wood can handle much more than the errant paring knife. Plus, “It’s much cheaper than having your cabinetmaker glue the pieces together, and it comes in lengths up to 40 feet,” Plasse says. The result is a bit rougher than that of a craftsman’s hand but adds another interesting texture to the home’s material palette.

Great Reveal
During the interior demo-lition, the contractors discovered wood beams in the ceiling, which Plasse, Parisien, and Raymond unanimously agreed to leave in place. “We wanted to express something about Quebec and its tradition of wood houses,” Plasse says. “We liked the idea of keeping that flavor and not making the house too refined.” They painted the beams white to create the illusion of a larger space.

Parisien and Raymond requested concrete floors, but when they priced out beyond the couple’s budget, Plasse proposed a trick he’d used before: installing half-inch-thick smooth fiber-cement panels instead of poured concrete. The contractors at Les Constructions JJL attached the Finex panels to the subfloor with stainless steel screws, finished them with a sealer by Sika, and piped a line of water-resistant exterior caulking between each one to allow for subtle expansion and contraction due to humidity.

Back to Life
In the early 1900s, when this house was completed, Montreal builders stacked large pieces of wood atop each other to construct a home, a technique derived from log house construction. While demolishing the rear wall to allow for the addition, Plasse and the team uncovered a wall of 3-by-12-inch hemlock boards. Cabinetmaker Stéphane Bilodeau gave the timber a new life in the form of the table and bench that now grace the dining room.

Go Natural
“A bathroom without a window is sad,” Plasse says. Parisien and Raymond’s lacked access to natural light, so the team replaced a section of the wall between the bathroom and kitchen with a large sheet of translucent acrylic. The three-eighths-inch-thick material by Deglas draws in light while maintaining necessary privacy.

On the Slide
By limiting the addition’s footprint, Plasse reserved space for Parisien and Raymond’s three backyard requests: a garden, a parking spot, and an outdoor barbecuing and dining area. The large sliding glass door at the end of the dining room opens onto a finished deck, which extends the living area outside. Plasse selected less expensive windows so the couple could splurge on the Alumilex sliding door.

Double Duty
“Everyone thinks they need one space for each function,” Plasse says. “We try to mix programs together to come up with simpler solutions that take up less space.” In the kitchen, the 16-foot-long island serves as a food prep station, office, bar, and breakfast nook. The sunken living room holds the promise of one day transforming into a third bedroom. The front room, which currently acts as part music room and part play space for the couple’s daughter, could become a living room if needed.

Reading Light

Though the ample glass on the rear facade creates a visual connection to the outdoors, Plasse knew its north-facing orientation would fail to adequately illuminate the double-height addition. To compensate, he installed a skylight over the dining room. Its clever placement allows light to fall directly onto the indoor balcony that extends off the master bedroom, creating a perfectly lit reading nook.

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