Homes and Gardens

A HOUSE WE LOVE: A cliff-side dwelling in Chinatown… and on Lebreton Flats

Looking down the set of metal steps that leads from Upper Lorne Avenue in Chinatown to Primrose Avenue in the Lebreton Flats area, most of us would simply see a steep hill with a sheer rock face to the left. But creative thinkers Marc Dupuis and Amanda Crowther saw a challenging site just perfect for a cliff-side dwelling. Eric Darwin talks with Dupuis about how this spectacular four-storey house came to be.

This feature appears in the May 2012 print edition. Pick up the print edition on newsstands.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARC FOWLER/METROPOLIS STUDIO

The main entrance (at left in photo, beside the garage) is on Upper Lorne Avenue. To make the most of the views to the north, the couple situated their kitchen and dining room on this level and their living room and balcony on the top floor.

What attracted you to this site?
On the day I was checking out the site, there happened to be a utility vehicle working on Upper Lorne Avenue. I talked the crew into taking me up in the cherry picker. Here I was, 15 feet up and 15 feet out from the sidewalk, hanging over the edge of the escarpment. My eyes just popped out of my head when I saw the view.

This is a challenging site. Are you an experienced builder?
Actually, I’m an IT business analyst for the RCMP but I also operate Limestone Developments. My first fixer-upper was in 1996 — a semi on Lees Avenue. My second was a three-door row house on Lorne. As we gutted it, we discovered structural problems, so of necessity, I became a new house builder. Then  I found this 23-by-50-foot lot.

Didn’t this lot seem impossible to build on? 
One side of the lot is 30 feet higher than the other. The south side is on Upper Lorne; the lower (north) side stands at the corner of Lorne and Primrose Avenue. The sidewalk between is a staircase with 45 steps. Behind us, the huge stone monastery looks like a medieval castle, and nearby is a nunnery straight out of Europe. The view to the north made us think we were in a high-rise condo. There is no other site like this in Ottawa. I had faith that engineers could make it work.

Knowing that they would spend a lot of time in the kitchen, the couple splurged on a custom design by Frank Prendergast of Neoform Art Cabinetry. The table is from Urban Barn and chairs were sourced from Zone.

The stairs have a modern yet industrial look. They act almost as a sculptural element, running between the four floors.

Who was your architect?
Linda Chapman designed the layout, with two floors below the Upper Lorne level and two floors above. We took her solution to the city and eventually got permission to build. Then we hired Jason Flynn to finish the floor plans and detail a house.

How did you build into the hill?
The stone cliff is quite fractured. We used a backhoe to dig out 100 tons of rock from the bottom of the site to make a level pad on which to pour the foundation. It was actually quite simple.

Simple? There must have been difficulties!  
It’s an unusual lot — it required unusual servicing. The city couldn’t figure out which street was our address, which services we could access, what was the front or side of the lot. When in doubt, they sat on the permits. We had to keep calling in our engineers and architects to prove that the project was feasible. It took longer to get the permits than to do construction!

How about the contractors? 
Everyone was scared of the site at first, but once they ran through the logistics of delivering materials to a rather conventionally built house, their confidence grew and prices returned to normal.

Surely your house is anything but conventional?
We employed technologies that are used elsewhere; the unusual came from putting them together in one house.  The floors are all radiant hot-water heated from a tankless water heater. The first two floors are built of ICF — it’s like assembling giant foam Lego blocks that are then pumped full of concrete. The house is super insulated and super cheap to heat or cool. The metal staircase runs four floors, behind glazed walls that look into the cliff face.

The master bedroom, set on the south side of the house, is situated directly beneath the garage. Says Dupuis: “You’d never know the car was up above. I sleep just fine.”

Surely no one else has a garage on the third floor?
We had street access only from Upper Lorne, which is our third floor. It’s actually not hard to support a garage, so there is living space underneath it. In our case, it’s our master bedroom and you’d never know the car was up above. I sleep just fine.

What were your “must-haves”? 
Materials that complement the natural exposed cliff face and the adjacent monastery. We also knew we wanted an inverted floor plan with living areas at the top and bedrooms down below, to maximize the views. We were also sold on having a super-insulated house — energy efficiency pays us back forever. We wanted a flexible-use level (the ground floor) that could be rented out for income.

What were the big splurges?
The kitchen/dining area on the entry level had to make a great first impression. Frank Prendergast of Neoform delivered a showpiece kitchen.

When did you know the design was right?
It was mid-winter, bitterly cold, windy, and already dusk. The contractor had just laid the joists for the fourth floor. I walked out on them and, for the first time, could really savour the view.

What do the neighbours think?
Presumably the nuns and monks prayed for us. The street is busy with pedestrians, who often stop to comment. Ninety-five percent are positive and curious.

The living room is on the fourth floor, with access to a spacious balcony that looks out over Lebreton Flats and across the Ottawa River to Gatineau.

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