Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Conversation Pit

One of my favourite aspects of mid-century, 1970s and 1980s housing design was actually not very common and never really caught on en-masse for builder's tract housing. The conversation pit was usually reserved for spacious and/or avant garde houses, but a few rare examples can be found in Ottawa and the Greater Toronto Area. 
The sunken conversation pit was commonly centred on a fireplace and was an intimate area to gather and have a conversation - thus the name of the design element. Sometimes this space was designed as a way to make a portion of a larger space into a cozy spot to gather. The sitting surface may have been in the form of built-in benches, or the stepped carpeted floor became the sitting surface. 

The following are some examples of builder tract housing with conversation pits. I have a couple of Ottawa examples, but I have also dug in to my Orange County (California) files and my Toronto-area plans to share some interesting examples.

Cadillac Fairview built this design in the Pineview area of Ottawa. It has a great conversation pit as a way to break up the sweeping run from the living room through to the family room.
 This Costain plan from Orleans has a conversation pit at one end of the family room with built-in seating.
In Hunt Club Woods, this Campeau design has a raised den with fireplace off of the master bedroom, which could be considered a variation of a conversation pit (raised and without built-in seating) - although I am not sure the location off of the bedroom would be ideal for entertaining. The optional second floor has a separate room, more conducive for inviting guests.
Below are two articles about houses in Orange County, Southern California, with conversation pits as an integral part of the design.
The following article is on a design built in Irvine, from Professional Builder June 1978:
The design above has a small conversation pit in the master bedroom - more of an intimate space for spouses to chat, and not really a larger group. In this example, the carpeted steps double as seats. 
The design below is from Huntington Beach as described in Professional Builder June 1979:

The front corner of the living room in the plan below has a sunken and vaulted conversation pit.

The following plans are from a development in the Villages of Heart Lake in Brampton (my hometown) from around 1985-1986. When I was younger, my plan collection was much smaller and I would spend hours studying the few I had. The plans from this area were some of my favourite (and still are) because the designs are so innovative and unusual. Portions of 3 plans are shown below, all with a conversation pit next to a fireplace.
If the conversation pit is at one end of the room, it may be referred to by the historic name for such an arrangement: an inglenook. Traditionally, inglenooks were not sunken, but were smaller spaces right next to the fireplace with benches. In the examples above and below, they are ways to make parts of the long rooms feel more intimate.

In this design the two-storey family room has an intimate and cosy pit by the fireplace.
A conversation pit is an unusual aspect of this 1986 Bramalea Limited plan built in Unionville near Toronto. It is the only design in the area with such a unique feature:
Although it is not a builder's tract house, the design above from a CHMC plan book has a conversation pit at the end of the long living room in this unique design.
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By the end of the 1980s conversation pits fell out of favour, and recent renovations to some houses have removed them altogether. I still think they are a fantastic feature and a great space to gather by the fireplace to have an actual conversation - instead of sitting in front of the TV or computer mesmerized by screens.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Canadian Housing Design Council award homes in Ottawa: Then and Now

The original version of this post was published 4 years ago, but it actually ties in quite well with my current academic research on how homeowners change the facades of their houses. I have updated some aspects, including more before/after images of the award homes. Also, the original post just focused on the award homes built by Minto, but I have added a Teron award-home at the end of this post.

During the 1960s and 1970s a handful of Ottawa builders won numerous Canadian Housing Design Council awards for their house designs. 

For the awards, builders entered one particular house built from their plans. I was curious to see how these award-winning houses stood the test of time, so I searched the addresses on Google Street View to see what they look like now. Many look almost the same, but some have changed over the years - some dramatically.

2010: At some point a second window was added on the front of the house to balance out the facade and give it a more traditional look. The wood-slat privacy fence is still there!

Here is another house from the same plan in the neighbourhood where a window was also added to the front facade...but not one that matches...

2010: Unlike the last house, this one still has the one off-centre window on the facade (which was a trademark of Minto designs of the time). I Love the colour scheme! It is hard to tell if the garage is new, but the style fits perfectly with the house.

The modern facade of this design seems to have been an issue with quite a few homeowners. As seen in the next few photographs of houses built from the award-winning plan, traditional elements (and windows) have been added.
While the original colour scheme seems to be intact, the decorative trim work has added a traditional layer on to the front of this house. 
Adding another window and shutters gives this house a very traditional look.
Again, a second window has been added to balance out the facade. It looks as though white vinyl siding was used to replace the original wood.

2010: The trees have really overgrown this house! Another signature element of Minto designs was having a section of blank wall facing the street. 
2013: The house is visible again! Most of the houses on the same street built from this design remain intact. There are a couple of white versions of this design, with brick instead of stone - which makes me believe that they may have been built that way and not changed from the earth-tone version. There are also some slightly different versions of this house - but alas, I do not have the plans...so if you do, please let me know!

2013: Not much has changed except for the front and garage doors. The windows might still be original, and the wood tones on the facade look great!
 2010: New front doors have been added, and the new picture window has slightly different proportions compared to the original. Here is another great example of the blank section of facade facing the street.

2010: The entrance court has been enclosed and the carport turned into a two-car garage. The brick wing wall was perforated next to the windows to create a new front entry. Enclosures of the carport have been done on other houses built from this plan in the area - in various different ways.

2010: This house has undergone many changes. Since the house is on a corner lot, the garage was re-located to the side, and the original garage made in to a room (which was done in keeping with the style of the house, and looks great!). A bay window was also added.

2010: The one-car garage was expanded to a two-car garage, and the window box was removed.
2010: The real difference can be seen in this view from Bing Maps, showing a small addition at the back.
2010: The house looks the same, except for the newer garage door. The original garage door had great horizontal lines, but the new one works too, as it ties in to the geometry of the decorative brick wall. They also kept the globe lamp out front! 
Since I first wrote this posting, I was able to visit one of the other 2 houses based on this plan in the area when it was for sale. It too remained quite intact outside (and inside). The third house on the street actually has an unpainted brick screen wall in front for a completely different look.

2013: It is hard to see the whole house behind the lush vegetation, but the shuttered window stands out, as the original design was modern and did not have any shutters.

2010: The house looks the same, except for newer white garage doors and newer white windows. The original design appears to have dark window trim and doors - probably stained wood.

2013: A more recent view of the house shows the new colour scheme, more monochrome in comparison to the original facade.

2010:  The house looks pretty much the same, just with the addition of white windows.
2013: A few years later and a whole new lighter colour scheme.

2013: This is another house in the area built from the same plan. The homeowners here added a porch and traditional-style windows changing the facade completely.

And a plan by Teron:

2013: The front facade of this house appears the same, with the beautiful exposed rafters. Below is a shot from the side of the house that shows that a bay window was added in the main bedroom. The sliding door with side windows next to it appears to indicate that the two smaller bedrooms have been combined into one space.