In the tiny Town of the Blue Mountains, 90 minutes northwest of Toronto, Ontario, the tallest point on the horizon is a brightly painted radio tower. The red-and-white column stands in contrast to the rolling, forested landscape, but it’s a good match for the house just down the hill from its base. Past a rusted metal gate—made from an old truck chassis—sits a country house with an industrial heart, built with used I-beams, polished concrete, galvanized steel, and recycled hardwood.
This is not your average house in Blue Mountains, where farmers have been supplanted by skiers and new houses tend toward French country. But it’s the dream home of metals broker S. J. Sherbanuk, and it was inspired by his work digging through closed factories in search of valuable materials.
His designer, James Campbell, says he knew from the beginning that Sherbanuk would be an unusual client. "He said, ‘I don’t want a house—I want a shed. A nice shed,’" Campbell recalls.
A wiry, intense guy who spends his leisure time skiing or cycling, Sherbanuk had very particular ideas about how his home should look. "I’ve always had this fascination with industrial buildings, and with my work, I’ve been in a lot of steel mills," he says. "Plus, I’m a modernist, so the way to combine those things is to build an environment with stuff I’m familiar with."
Sherbanuk’s approach to sustainability is as utilitarian as his design sense, leaning less on the recent arrival of efficiency technologies and more on the long history of material reuse and the unfailing reliability of industrial scrap to last for centuries. Outside, old galvanized-steel siding provides the skin for the house. Inside, in the living-dining area, a series of exposed steel girders supports the broad roof. Two of the girders, rescued from a demolition job, bear marks from their last lives in another building. Downstairs, Campbell designed a bar built of Douglas fir and I-beams. The steel here is new, but the wood was cut from planks found in the Toronto warehouse of a forestry company. In the living area, custom cabinets made of hot-rolled steel conceal the expensive entertainment system.
Even the art on the walls reflects the theme: A photograph by Edward Burtynsky of a mine tailings pond and an otherworldly photo by Jesse Boles of belching smokestacks are beautiful reminders of the precarious interface between industry and nature—and our power to direct it toward good or harm.
All of this—industrial chic and attention to recycled materials—comes naturally to Sherbanuk. He used to co-own a large scrapyard, and he’s seen many tons of steel, copper, and aluminum go from finished product back to raw material. "All metals are infinitely recyclable," he says. There’s also a more personal resonance to the house: It reminds Sherbanuk of his childhood in a mining town on the north shore of Lake Huron. "I hung out in the shed because our house was really small," he recalls. "I had three brothers, so that was the only place I could get away."
Completed in 2007, Sherbanuk’s home is a series of irregularly shaped "sheds": a long, low volume housing the guest suite and living-dining area; another with a workshop, laundry, and mudroom; and a three-story, metal-clad tower for the kitchen, bedroom, and workout room. It’s an odd shape, yet it fits the landscape, hugging the contours of the hillside and nestling into the shade of the forest at its peak.
This combination of rootedness and roughness is inherent to the designer. Campbell, whose family has lived in the area for generations, is determined to develop an architecture that reflects the area’s traditional building forms: "The barns and springhouses, they’re the local vernacular, and that’s a real inspiration for our work in this house."
Campbell—who designed the house with his associate and wife, Suzanne Wesetvik—also employed basic sustainable building strategies. Its main exposure is to the southeast for optimal levels of sunlight; in winter the concrete floor gains heat during the day and releases it at night, supplemented by radiant-floor heating systems. Small windows along the west side let in prevailing winds for natural ventilation.
All of this certainly makes the house more sustainable, but Sherbanuk figures the house’s greenest quality will come out in the long term. "With most houses, when they’re torn down, everything goes into a bin," he says. "When this house gets pulled down 60 or 80 years from now, they won’t even need a bin. It’s all gonna get reused."
Alex Bozikovic is a Toronto based writer and editor for the Globe and Mail and frequent Dwell contributor. While interviewing Studio Junction's Christine Ho Ping Kong and Peter Tan, the architect-residents of the Courtyard House, he was impressed by the couple's remarkable DIY chutzpah and became inspired to try a major project himself. Someday. Maybe.