Nearly two decades of interior-design work have taught Kathy Johnston Umbach that creating the perfect family home takes more than just an eye for colour and decor. When Kathy and her husband, David, set off to build a home that they and their two sons could grow into, they were meticulous about making sure that every square inch of the space would accommodate the family’s needs and active lifestyle.
Umbach, who owns her own commercial interior design company, Human Dimensions Licensed Interior Design Inc., has utilized the experience and insider knowledge acquired from her 15-year tenure as Stantec’s interior design lead. Years of poring over building plans and construction materials helped her address her newly constructed home, which stands on a 0.8-acre lot just above Mill Creek Ravine. Umbach was adamant that both form and function would need to coexist within the home. “I believe that a space is about the people that are in it,” says Umbach. “If you are designing a home, you have to think about how the people will be using it.” Umbach had an initial idea of what the new home would be, but when it came time to begin construction on the property, the plans changed to reflect inspirations from a time her family spent abroad in Italy. “When I got back, I scrubbed all of the plans that I had made while we were away. Once I understood the driver of a mid-century modern exterior and Scandinavian modern interior, it all just came running out,” says Umbach. “That clarity was what helped drive everything forward.”
The unmistakable mid-century modern architecture of the 2,600 square-foot home is a stark contrast from the span of trees and greenery that jut from the ravine surrounding the property. The home’s exterior – with its mix of Malaysian hardwood paneling, flaxen-coloured brick and dark grey stucco – makes a bold statement. But the incorporation of the home’s outdoor spaces -including the east, west and south facing decks- create a balance of the indoor/outdoor lifestyle that the family fell in love with while living abroad. “So much of our enjoyment of the home is really about being able to open the doors and having choices for where to spend our time,” says Umbach. “It’s great to sit out in the morning with a cup of coffee or in the evening to soak up the summer sun.”
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature on the home’s exterior is the slate feature wall at the front of the residence. While the design choice strengthens the modern aesthetic that Umbach had envisioned, its function – like most elements in the home’s design – serves a distinct purpose. The natural stone acts as a sound buffer from the main thoroughfare that runs in front of the house, resulting in a blissful calm as you pass through the entryway.
Inside the home, the soaring ceiling heights and open sightlines deliver on Umbach’s promise of the clean lines that are common in Scandinavian inspired interiors. Each material element within the space was carefully chosen to maximize the home’s architectural elements and modernist decor choices. The white porcelain tile floors carry throughout the entire main floor of the house, creating a continuous and uninterrupted flow throughout the space. The translucent Coroplast sheeting that runs along the floating staircase to the second floor maintains the airiness achieved by the flood of natural light coming through the expansive windows. And wood finishes in oak, walnut, fir and teak maintain the home’s connection to the natural world that envelops the triangular lot.
In keeping with Umbach’s obsession with smart design, the materials aren’t just there for looks; they also cut down on energy waste. The family invested in an in-floor heating system and a heat-recovery ventilator on all three levels of the home -as well as a wood-burning fireplace in the family room- meaning that there is no need for a furnace. The windows throughout the house open to circulate fresh air, allowing the family to forego forced ventilation and air conditioning. “People talk a lot about sustainability, but I think that the principals of good design are inherently sustainable,” says Umbach. The material choices in the home’s kitchen were just as important for the family. The solid surface quartz countertop and patterned stone backsplash (sourced while on a stone tour in Sardinia) means that there is no need to stress when life gets a bit messy. “The material selection was all about practicality balanced with beauty. I live in a house full of boys; even the dog is a dude,” laughs Umbach. “It was important to not have to consider or be delicate about how we live in the house but, instead, be allowed to be who we are and create a space that we can be comfortable in.”