A Shoebox Home in Montreal Gets Updated

Many of these are being demolished; this one got saved and expanded.

Front of shoebox house
Why is this on Treehugger?.

Pelletier de Fontenay

Shoebox houses were built in Montreal about a hundred years ago for the working classes; they were small, flat-roofed starter homes built on the outskirts of town. Many of them are being lost as they are replaced with larger, multi-story buildings, either multiple units or just bigger houses.

This presents a challenge; we often talk about increasing density, but also of historic preservation, and the character of our neighborhoods. As the architecture firm Pelletier de Fontenay notes of a recent project to preserve one of these houses:

"A number of factors led to the decision of preserving the existing one-storey volume of the building. First, it was important to maintain the sequence of aligned shoeboxes present on the street. Secondly, 'shoeboxes' as a typology are slowly disappearing from the city’s landscape and being replaced with denser two to three storey buildings. The project was an opportunity to develop an alternative approach for these types of one storey buildings."

Pelletier de Fontenay

The house is in an industrial area, surrounded by garages and train tracks. Although the client is evidently "seduced by the buzzing energy of the site with garages on one side, trains on the other and the laneway along the southern edge of the lot," you can have too much energy, so they took an ancient Roman idea: an inward-looking courtyard. "It is however more often associated with warm climates, than nordic ones and is remarkably largely absent from Quebec’s and more specifically Montréal’s architecture."

view of courtyard

Pelletier de Fontenay

We have discussed the virtues of courtyard designs before on Treehugger, noting that they make a lot of sense in an urban environment; "the ability to enclose the courtyard creates so much extra useful space, compared to a usual house with front and back yard." For a deep property like this one, it brings light and air into the middle of the house.
Besides having an almost Roman plan, it also has a Japanese entry idea that makes so much sense in Canada.

view towards door

Pelletier de Fontenay

Pelletier de Fontenay notes:

"The main entrance is situated at the northeast corner. A tall frosted glass door opens onto a small mud room where the existing floor was sunk, an adaptation of the Japanese Genkan which controls the dissemination into the domestic space of dirt and small gravel that plagues Quebec streets in the winter. A skylight punctuates the space, creating a more formal threshold and lighting up the perspective of the entrance when seen from the living area."
Rear of house

Pelletier de Fontenay

"Why is this on Treehugger?" is a common question in comments, and one that I ask every time I am writing a post. This one raised a couple of interesting questions; should we be saving old buildings just because they are old? In another part of Montreal, 561 of these boxes were declared to be heritage buildings. According to the CBC, "Unhappy shoebox owners — some of whom had plans for renovations, alterations or redevelopment halted by the bylaw" were outraged.


Pelletier de Fontenay

On the other hand, we preach renovation and reuse, and quote Architects Declare who say we should "Upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon-efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice."

view from courtyard

Pelletier de Fontenay

On this one, I come down on the side of the renovation, how Pelletier de Fontenay took a totally banal building, didn't fight it to make it into something it isn't, and turned it into an interesting, simple, and affordable home. "The restrained palette of materials used for the exterior and the interior supports the conceptual clarity of the project while also acknowledging economic imperatives."

Minimalist interiors

Pelletier de Fontenay

And I do love a minimalist interior. "The interiors are simply painted white, keeping the emphasis on the client’s numerous objects, books and art. The concrete floor, present on both levels of the house continue into the backyard, creating an exterior extension of the living spaces between the garden and the back facade." It is as the architects describe it: "a simple and frugal space."