Contemporary is the new tradition in housing awards entries

It will be a crowded affair at Saturday’s 31st annual housing design fête at the Ottawa Convention Centre, with a rush of fresh faces and tested veterans vying for top honours.

The number of entries soared from 150 last year to an unprecedented 241 submissions this year in 43 categories, ranging from modest townhomes in the suburbs to 4,500-square-foot custom homes on urban streets and slick white kitchens in a condo highrise down to a tantalizing wine cellar in an estate home, says Linda Oliveri, chair of the 2014 Housing Design Awards, which are organized by the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association and sponsored by the Citizen.

There are new categories recognizing the top custom and production builders in the city, as well as big and small urban infill homes, exterior finishings and fine outdoor living spaces.

Oliveri and her team shook up the awards organization, introducing an eight-member judging panel of architects, designers and builders from across Canada to replace the handful of local judges from past years. Instead of eyeballing photographs on boards in an Ottawa boardroom, the contenders were whittled down to 158 finalists and then 43 winners by clicking through the entries and judging online.

After all of the clicking, it became clear that clean contemporary designs are becoming the new tradition in a city where renovators, builders and kitchen and bath designers are key in an industry worth $2.5 billion a year.

There were rumblings after the 2013 awards that judges, picked from the Ottawa housing industry, were besotted with modern design, ignoring deserving traditional entries. But the influx of modern designs has not slowed, says Chris Hewett, professor in the Architectural Technology program at Algonquin College and the only returning local judge on the panel.

“The modern trend is continuing,” he says, adding that grey has become the new neutral in many entries. “There were also a lot of surgically white kitchens and floating staircases with glass guard rails that opened up a lot of spaces.”

Virtually every entry eliminated walls, often erasing formal living rooms for great rooms attached to kitchens with oversized islands that do double duty for eating, studying and general entertaining.

“There were a lot of good entries overall,” says judge Doug Tarry, past president of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association and owner of Doug Tarry Homes in the southwestern Ontario community of St. Thomas. “We see a lot more Craftsman styles in St. Thomas, but the market is a lot smaller than Ottawa and we do not have the same urban infill market.

“Even traditional designs were simplified and less fussy.”

The infatuation with contemporary design is partly a matter of city size, adds judge Tim Scott, an award-winning kitchen and bathroom designer and owner of XTC Design in Toronto. “I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of work, given the smaller size of the Ottawa market.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if (architect) Chris Simmonds and (designer) Friedemann Weinhardt win again because their work is outstanding and that is coming from a neutral source,” he says, adding he knows both men. Simmonds, who dominated the awards last year and took away an armful of awards in 2012, has entered several categories, including a modern cottage that seems to hang from a rock face in the Gatineau Hills.

Weinhardt, owner of Design First Interiors, has also entered a series of custom categories, including an exotic ensuite bathroom with a freestanding tub snuggled into a block of grey and white marble.

Ottawa architect Barry Hobin is back with a flurry of partnerships: with 2H Interior Design and Uniform Urban Developments for model homes on top of Richardson Ridge in Kanata; with Roca Homes for a custom urban home in Rockcliffe Park; and with the renovation of a top floor condo on Craig Street in the Glebe with Urban Keios. He also entered a wonderfully simple glass and stone connected series of pavilions overlooking the St. Lawrence River at Rockport.

Also back are many (but not all) of the city’s big builders. They’re joined this year by relative newcomers Legacy Homes and Maple Leaf Homes, both infill specialists, as well as others who are new to the awards program, such as Luxart, Linebox Studios, Art House Developments, Greenmark Builders and Irpinia Kitchens.

“It was the diversity of entries and designs that struck me,” says James Bazely, judge and owner of Gregor Homes, an award-winning firm specializing in Green and accessible designs in Barrie, Ont. “The builders are spending more time being diverse and coming up with unique designs.”