At Linebox Studio, ‘we’re doing all kinds of whacky cool stuff’

It’s beer Friday at the office of Linebox Studio. Founder Andrew Reeves, a laid-back, against-the-grain kind of architect, relaxes at the raised conference table in the open-concept office, sips his can of Cameron’s, and reflects on the impressive portfolio his firm has amassed in the dozen years it has existed.

His company came away with four trophies at last fall’s Housing Design Awards, put on by the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association; it’s behind the design of one of the city’s more unusual condo projects; and it has become, as the 43-year-old Reeves puts it, a preferred designer for many high-tech companies, including more than 800,000 square feet of Shopify’s office space.

“We’re doing all kinds of whacky cool stuff,” he says.

He attributes the company’s success to a determination to embrace all aspects of design, from concept, through building, to overseeing how an interior space will come together at the end of a project. That, and a collaborative approach that gives as much importance to the opinions of a knowledgeable sub-trade in developing ideas as it does to a lead architect.

The reception desk of software firm Element AI in Montreal is flanked by walls of spiralled, stacked bricks for delicious visual texture.

As an example, he points to the office of Montreal software firm Element AI, where a stunning feature walls of spiralled bricks found their final form after bouncing the spark of an idea off a seasoned brick layer.

“We design through character, the people and the place,” Reeves continues. “So, if it’s your house, our biggest thrill is the very beginning when we talk about you and what you are, how you breathe, how you eat, how you sleep — that’s fun. It’s not about style or what’s the coolest colour this year.”

Interpreting all of that is what he refers to as the character of a person, which is combined with how a space will function and, of course, the budget. “If it’s done right, it becomes one perfect little object that is more powerful than any one of those individual things.”

Born in Windsor and educated at Carleton, Reeves got his start at BBB Architects here in Ottawa, cutting his teeth as part of the team working on the Ottawa airport expansion and the glass-walled convention centre that became the Shaw Centre.

When it came time to strike out on his own, he did so by building a modern infill home in Old Ottawa South on speculation with a friend. It was a risky move, but they broke even and it created a scenario of “if they see it they will come” that attracted like-minded clients, many of whom have gone on to become friends, Reeves says.

Although he has branched out into the more lucrative commercial and office space, Reeves is loyal to his residential roots. “Houses are probably the worst financial route you ever take … but we still do them because it is the birthplace of everything.”

It’s how, for instance, Shopify founder Tobias Lütke came to him, or restaurateur Matt Carmichael (Riviera, El Camino). In both cases, drawn to Reeves’ modern esthetic, they commissioned him to design their homes, which then led to designing their business spaces. “I didn’t even know what Shopify was,” he admits.

Whatever the space, Reeves employs the same philosophy: bringing that “character-based ideology” of design into the commercial realm, treating office space like it’s an extension of your home.

Architect Andrew Reeves prefers the character and texture that ‘real’ materials such as brick and cedar bring to contemporary design. With his award-winning Westboro home he also introduced zinc as an accent.

Getting back to homes, one example where “it’s done right” is an unusual custom infill Reeves designed in Westboro that scooped up three awards at last fall’s housing awards: for its custom home category, its kitchen category and for housing details.

“There was a real subtlety to the way they dealt with the massing on the exterior,” judge Chris Lemke of Alloy Homes said at the time. “It was a unique response to a particular site.”

The site is an odd one, a somewhat triangular and wider-than-usual urban lot overlooking the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway and the Ottawa River at Westboro Beach.

Reeves calls his response to the site like “throwing dice on a table” and seeing where they land, then playing with the pieces, twisting and turning them to get the right fit.

Having more frontage than a typical infill gave Reeves the luxury of distributing the massing of the home across the site so that it’s lower on one end, where there is a bungalow next door, and higher on the other, which is open to National Capital Commission property. It also meant he could angle the garage away from the street while keeping it easily accessible.

The back of the home takes advantage of the incredible views of the river while also answering the challenges presented by the sun, the wind and area noise.

“It’s like having a cottage in the middle of the city,” says the homeowner, who did not want to be identified. “Even when we’re indoors, we feel a connection to the outdoors.”

Inside, the goal was to create a hub of comfort and connectedness, ensuring that the main living areas of the 3,700-square-foot home encourage gathering together. Music and playing piano are important to this family of four, which includes two teenage children, so their grand piano is given a place of prominence off the great room in a door-less music room that boasts a peek-a-boo window to the kitchen.

In a nod to the family’s musical leanings, the staircase, which becomes a focal point, features a balustrade suggesting piano keys, something that architecturally made sense to Reeves. It was that staircase that won the housing details category.

The staircase, which won for housing details, draws the eye to the soaring brick wall that extends past the glass wall. It leads to a bridge that spans the two bedroom wings upstairs. The rhythmic balustrade symbolizes individual piano keys in a nod to the family’s grand piano.

The home is about more than its looks, though, and was recently awarded LEED Platinum certification. The stringent requirements of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program take into account all aspects of the home, including demolition of the old building, how materials were disposed of and the construction process of the new home.

“(It’s) a gruelling exercise in documentation and co-ordination,” says Kevin Lake, whose company The Lake Partnership built the home. In the end, his crew was able to divert about 90 per cent of the construction waste.

Building a very green home was important to the homeowner, who has spent the majority of her career as a management consultant addressing sustainable development and environmental issues. “I’m very passionate about sustainability,” she says. “We strongly believe that we all have a role in playing in trying to reduce our environmental footprint.”

The home includes such green features as grey water recycling (shower water is reused as toilet water), a green roof, rainwater harvesting (it’s stored in a cistern under the deck and used for irrigation) and electric car charging in the garage, among others.

St. Charles Market features beautiful horizontal homes that wrap around the former St. Charles Church.

Shifting to homes of another type, Reeves is particularly proud these days of his firm’s work in designing St. Charles Market.

Currently under construction, the eight-storey building offers 54 condo apartments and three townhomes that wrap around the former St. Charles Church in Beechwood Village, while still leaving about half of the property for a park-like setting.

“It really is going to be fundamentally a different look and approach to how condos can be,” Reeves says.

Most condos, he explains, “are like this temporary solution until you’re successful and you buy a house.” But he drew inspiration from both the European example and his custom infill background to “think about how people live in a little house and make the little house in a building.”

He sees the revitalized site once again being a “magnet bringing people together,” just as the church used to do.

‘It’s a really special spot,’ Reeves says of the chalets he’s designing at Mont Ste. Marie. ‘We’re excited about the mountain and the future.’

So, what’s next for Reeves?

For one, he’s having fun with some A-frame ski chalets at Mont Ste. Marie.

“I have this glamping idea where it’s all cross-laminated timbers, like glorified plywood and really cool modernist cabins scattered in the woods.” That includes a chalet for his own family. He and wife Melissa have two young daughters and will head up there on weekends to ski, or rather, he tries to ski. “I’m from Windsor, it’s flat,” he says.

He’s also keen to do his part in the revival of the ByWard Market, which is home to his Ottawa office (he also has offices in Toronto and Montreal).

“There’s a lot of potential there; it just needs someone to start driving it.” To that end, he’s interested in “pushing the conversation to get it going” and show Ottawa Markets, the municipal corporation formed to manage the market, what can be done.

“The city is in a super interesting state right now; it’s trying to find itself,” he says, referring to things like the stalled LeBreton Flats development. “As much as it’s frustrating, it’s also exciting because there’s opportunity. We could blow it all away but we’re trying to stay on the positive side, that it is an opportunity, so let’s try to do the best we can.”


Photography: Jean Levac, Claude-Simon Langlois, Justin Van Leeuwan, Modbox Inc.