Engraved House

As artist Christopher Griffin and aesthetician Oresta Korbutiak prepared to renovate their live-work space in Ottawa, the couple sought an architect who would respect the bones of the building, the land and the neighborhood, and do it sustainably. They found a sympathetic collaborator in Andrew Reeves, who helped them retain the footprint, modernize the place and create private outdoor space for the highly exposed corner building. The mixed-use structure was originally a confectionery built in 1901, and over the years had served as a general store, a post office and a rooming house.

When Reeves first saw the building, he found what he calls a “dog’s breakfast of architecture—windows were placed arbitrarily, it was a hodgepodge of additions and renovations, and there was no continuity to it.” His plan included creating cedar framing for “an architectural rhythm,” integrated with Griffin’s request for exterior concrete panels he could carve designs into, all tied together with horizontal wood accents made from floorboards from the original house and aluminum reveals for, says the architect, “a sense of formality.”

“We were advised by contractors to just tear it down,” says Griffin. “But we fell in love with the quirkiness of the building, so we chose to gut it instead: We put in new plumbing, electrical, ductwork, windows, doors, walls, floors, and subfloors—the only thing we were able to save was the staircase handrail.” In a fortuitous turn, a nearby 1900s Dutch embassy building was being demolished concurrent with the renovation, and the pair was able to score quality antique building materials, cheap. “We were strapped for cash, so we got amazing materials from a beautiful building from the same period,” says Griffin. “We found these great solid wood doors for 50 bucks each, so we built around them.”

An important tenet was that the renovation remain as green as possible while staying within the couple’s limited budget. Reeves used fly-ash concrete—a byproduct of coal-fired electric power generation that traditionally ends up in landfills—for the exterior. The couple found the original building’s flooring in the basement; Reeves used it as accent cladding. The cedar surrounding the deck is mostly reclaimed, and all the materials used were locally sourced. Solar panels on the green roof are used to heat the water, and the home is bullfrog powered (by wind and hydro facilities), a technology now offered to all residents of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

The two-story building measures about 2,100 square feet split evenly between the floors, with a portion of the downstairs still zoned commercial, where the confectionary once stood and where Korbutiak houses her skin treatment rooms and what she calls her organic skin care confectionary—where she also sells organic chocolates and candy. “The upstairs was never really historic, so we tore two walls down to create more of an open concept,” notes Griffin. The top floor includes the living room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms, one for the couple and one for their 5-year-old daughter, Kalyna (which means “cranberry” in Ukrainian, a reference to Korbutiak’s heritage). Just off the kitchen is the deck, newly enclosed with alternating reclaimed cedar slats to provide privacy from the nearby office tower yet allow sunlight and breezes in.

During the renovation, the couple quickly found that their home was a place of local legend, evidenced by the visitors who approached them during the process to tell their stories. There was the man who told them that as a young boy he had helped his parents run the confectionary, and the woman who announced that she was born in the building in 1927. “I believe we are only occupying this space for a limited time and it is important to acknowledge past incarnations of it,” says Griffin. To that end, he stamped, using an old metal typeface, the names of all the owners of the land, from the Algonquin Indians to the family, on one wall of the house. Next to the confectionary entrance, he stamped every recorded business from the turn of the century to the present. In one concrete block, the family engraved their names alongside the names of the construction crew, and upon the old coal chute, Griffin stamped an exact copy of the original deed to the property.

Griffin’s exterior engravings were the final piece of the remodel. Working in individual concrete panels, he only had about 15 minutes to engrave each one before the concrete hardened. Using a 14-inch-long bone knife that he acquired from a traditional hunter in Indonesia, Griffin “went by gut feeling. It was a Zen moment where you almost can’t think, you have to go and trust, and just flow with it,” he says. “I dedicated the south wall to fire, so I did a large sun, sunflowers and a rooster. For the north side, the earth side, I used caribou. The east wall was air, so I did a flock of birds flying, and the west side is water, so put a large humpback whale there. I have been influenced by cave paintings and indigenous art; they are ways of communicating across thousands of years. I see my engravings as way of communicating with the public.”

Most appear to be responding well to Griffin’s communication. “We had an 8-year-old kid on a skateboard come by and say, ‘Wow, cool building,’” he says. “And an old couple walked by one day, and one of them said to me, ‘We really don’t like that modern stuff, but this is wonderful.’