OTTAWA — A positive outcome of intensification in older, downtown neighbourhoods has been the emergence of boutique developers committed to working with creative, often young, architects. At their best, these partnerships result in strong but sensitive modernist houses finding their way into the fabric of Ottawa’s eclectic mix of residential architecture.

Larchwood Urban Developments, owned by husband and wife Steve and Eileen Mlikan, is just such a developer/builder working under Ontario’s Tarion new home warranty program. Since its founding in 2005, the firm has viewed modern residential architecture as a solidly viable commercial niche product.

With Andrew Reeves’ Linebox Studio (linebox.ca) — one of a number of emerging Ottawa architects with healthy modernist residential practices — Larchwood (larchwood.ca) has solidified its commitment to robust contemporary design.

“I met Eileen when I was living in southern California,” explains Mlikan as we tour the firm’s latest completed project, two doubles at the corner of Champagne Avenue South and Young Street. She took him to see both new and older but iconic modernist houses in the region. “As a professional electrical engineer,” he continues, “their clean, functional approach to living space appealed to my engineering sensibilities.” After the couple married and returned to Ottawa, they built their own resolutely modern house just a few blocks west of the Champagne project.

If the Mlikans have successfully carried their personal preference into the marketplace, Reeves also points to what he calls a healthy trend in Ottawa.

“We are nearing a tipping point,” he says, “where modernism’s strong functionalism is mixed not with a concern for bedroom counts but with the quality of the living spaces being created.”

The Champagne houses, located a short walk over a pedestrian bridge to Little Italy and just north of the city’s most active, if controversial, condo district, shares its immediate locale with several other modest-sized but modernist-inspired developments.

The two semi-detached units employ relatively straightforward, boxlike forms presenting a three-storey facade to the street but with the first level sunk below grade on the back side to accommodate a change in grade on the west. This entrance level, clad in grey stucco, has been eroded at the front corners for parking spots and to provide sheltered entrances. Above these voids, strong metal cornices wrap around the corners.

Corner windows partially framed by well extruded frames, as well as the use of two different moulded profiles for the natural aluminum siding, ensure taunt but animated skins. Produced by Ottawa Valley Metals, the metal panels boast unique, Reeves-designed profiles. “The extra cost of adding a completely original element to the project was remarkably modest,” says the architect.

But it’s the glazed, three-storey bay windows centring the two blocks that are perhaps the homes’ most distinctive element. Framed also in grey stucco, the windows are treated as elongated canvases on which to construct glass variations of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian’s Neo-Plastic paintings, in which an asymmetrical balance of primary colours and white are contained within a geometric grid of vertical and horizontal lines.

Reeves used stained glass usually found in church windows and whose mottled texture adds a softer, more diffused, light when inside. The windows also signal the units’ stairwells, which have been brought to the front of the homes, thus ensuring a lively, if mediated, view of the city through the mix of clear, coloured and translucent glass panels.

Once inside, the stairs bend up to the main living space on the second level. To the back of the initial level, a large room with a street-facing window and a full bathroom allows multiple uses for the first floor. In one unit the owner has converted the space to a training gym; in another it’s a home office complete with built-in shelving to replace closets.

The main living space on the second floor or “piana nobile” is primarily one large flowing and light-filled space measuring a generous 20 by 40 feet. A modern-style kitchen with dark, wood-grained cabinetry, quartz counters and Serra Gris tile backsplash, all sourced from Astro Design Centre, is tucked behind the stairwell.\

Light-toned maple flooring throughout unifies the space and contributes to its brightness. The key element, however, is a substantial three-way gas fireplace replete with raised hearth that serves to define, but not visually conceal, the living room from the kitchen/dining areas.

A broad, three-panel sliding glass door on the rear elevation adds additional afternoon light to the already generously glazed space as well as providing access to a modest enclosed backyard with both hard and soft landscaping.

Two large bedrooms, including a master with a sleekly modern ensuite bathroom, occupy the top floor as well as a second full bathroom, again sourced from Astro. A convenient small laundry room completes this level.

To help innovative boutique developers successfully produce unique but cost-effective housing, concludes Reeves, an architect cannot become overly fixated on design nor lose contact with the trades who so often are excited when presented with challenges outside their standard work.

“Similar to the successful approach of many Danish firms,” he says, “our work must emphasize quality and creativity but at a price that works in the marketplace.”

Linebox Studio — the name is a cheeky reference to a petulant remark from a now ex-girlfriend that architecture was “nothing but lines and boxes” — pays close attention to walking this delicate tightrope.