Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke plays with colour

OTTAWA — Only a few years ago, Tobias Lütke and Fiona McKean were living the archetypical life of a millennial couple — or at least its urban legend version. Ensconced in McKean’s parents’ home to save money and expecting their first child, Lütke was engrossed in building his startup company into a major IT player.

How things have changed. With that company — Shopify — now a hugely successful provider of user-friendly software for the development and operation of online stores, the couple and their two boys recently moved into their own resolutely modern house.

This family-oriented home incorporates bold colours, abundant natural light and a few adaptations to the digital age. But although it’s a contemporary style (the work of Linebox Architecture’s Andrew Reeves), its relatively modest size, careful massing and use of brick and cedar siding ensures a unique, yet still contextual, addition to New Edinburgh’s eclectic mix of housing.

In many ways, the home’s informal, cheerful design typifies a remarkable decade for the couple. In 2003, Lütke followed his then-girlfriend to Ottawa from Germany and a year later Snowdevil, a snowboard retail operation, was born. When he and partners Daniel Weinand and Scott Lake found existing tools for setting up shop online “deplorable,” Shopify was born. Now, with a rapidly expanding staff, the company’s value has reportedly reached the billion-dollar-plus club.

Yet 33-year-old Lütke’s approach to life as a hi-tech executive remains very grounded and family-oriented. In 2012, he told journalist Diane Jermyn, “There was a time for 16-hour days early in the process. People get a bit crazy about this. But in fields where you use a lot of creativity to solve challenges, the best people might have five concentrated hours of work in a day … If I can get five concentrated hours out of someone, that’s all I can ask, myself included.”

It’s a balanced philosophy reflected in the 2,500-square-foot, family-oriented home the couple built on Ivy Crescent.

As we sit in the gourmet-equipped, light-filled kitchen, McKean, 34, outlines a careful two-year search to identify just the right lot, although they already knew and appreciated the southeast corner of New Edinburgh in which they eventually settled. The 32-foot-wide lot they found was occupied by a small, partially gutted cottage that had remained vacant for six years.

Demolishing and building a new house, however, was not without challenges. The city, adapting helter-skelter to emerging implications of its intensification policy, had changed the rules, making parking from Ivy no longer an option. This meant having to press the city to reopen the rear public laneway, a move that, while successful, was unpopular with some neighbours who had appropriated parts of the public right-of-way.

“We interviewed a bunch of architects, looking for someone both open to our ideas and a close working relationship but committed to modern and green design that was warm and family-oriented,” says McKean. Fear of strong colours was also not an option.

Impressed with Reeves’ approach to client collaboration and his increasing portfolio of often-playful modern design, the choice was made.

From the street, the two-storey house appears as “three sliding volumes,” Reeves says, starting with a brick-clad centre block with unique corner-eroding windows. To the east is a slim, recessed and extruded portion in stained cedar with four horizontal slot windows that allow morning light deep into the first level. On the west is a wider but more deeply recessed block, also in cedar, that appears almost separated from the house by an indented glazed “slot.” Entry is through a large glass door in this west wing.

The interior’s defining element is a totemic staircase that Reeves has treated as a piece of modern kinetic sculpture. The open riser, dark-stained wood staircase cleaves the middle of the house, rising from the kitchen. Along both sides, two solid parallel walls, perforated by geometric shapes of various sizes, embrace the stairs. The punched voids, whose inside surfaces are painted vivid red, yellow or blue, provide glimpses of people using the stairs or offer fragmented views of the house while “inside” the staircase.

The large communal space that makes up the kitchen and dining room is divided by an eight-foot-long island with a concrete counter. Although the sleek cabinetry is white, the space is warmed — literally and visually — by deep honey-toned bamboo flooring with radiant heating, as well as a plate glass backsplash that reveals the wall’s rich yellow colour.

The boldest colour jolt, however, comes from the south corner window. Of the 11 vertical panes wrapping around the corner, seven are brightly coloured glass. The same treatment also animates the northwest corner of the living room, as well as appearing in the horizontal window slots in the office window over the front door.

Reeves has experimented with colour windows before, but here he has moved up from using church stained glass with its size limitation to a “sandwich glass” where the colour filter is placed between two glass layers.

“Converting this to thermal windows,” he says, “ was the real headache of the house’s design.” The effort was worth it. Creating playfully colourful interior spaces by day, they ensure the house emerges as a delightful street beacon at night.