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Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grâce, or NDG to locals, has not so quietly become one of the city’s most desirable neighbourhoods. Despite the emergence of different districts – Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and St-Henri have both been earmarked as places to watch – NDG, located southwest of tony Westmount, is a hotbed in itself: recent reports say its house prices have increased 15 per cent since 2017, making it one of Canada’s hottest real-estate markets. A best-kept secret it ain’t.

Yet the neighbourhood doesn’t have the old-money grandeur of Westmount. Rather, it’s filled with humble post-war residences; here, efficient brick low-rises are the standard typology. And while those homes have their limitations – narrow lots and the neighbourhood’s largely consistent material language among them – a number of architects have used those restraints as the backdrop for imaginative renovations. A prime example? Bessborough Residence, designed by local firm _naturehumaine.

The firm, led by architect Stéphane Rasselet, was tasked with completely overhauling the ground floor of a duplex – a condo-sized space that tops out at 900 square feet. To maximize the space, its first inclination, quite naturally, was to open it up. So the firm split the floorplan into three blocks: a vestibule flanked by two bedrooms, an open kitchen / living-dining area and an interstitial strip. More on that in a moment.

For _naturehumaine, it was essential to select materials, finishes and furniture that didn’t overwhelm. Throughout, the firm used a deliberately restrained palette of concrete, blond wood and steel, and filled the renovation with minimalist products designed by local brands. The polished concrete floors are by Atelier B; Lambert & Fils’ brass Dot Line Suspension lights hang over the living spaces; the dining area is defined by Montreal custom furniture brand De Gaspé, including its Allais table, Arrow bench and Babila Chairs; the living-room couch was sourced from local online retailer Élément de Base.

But the project’s defining feature sits in its interstitial strip – namely, a handsome black volume that anchors the entire renovation.

In the June issue of Azure, we noted that most open-concept plans, while space-efficient and beautiful, suffer from a number of problems: they lack privacy, flexibility and can negatively impact mental and physical health. The volume introduced by _naturehumaine addresses such concerns: the firm describes it as a “filter,” a block that “defines the circulation” between the home’s private and public areas.

Made from MDF panels, glass and steel rods, the elegant volume serves a multitude of functions – and conceals many of Bessborough Residence’s service areas. Situated across from the bedrooms, it contains a concealed walk-in closet and a library (above right) as well as a hidden bathroom.

Adjacent from the kitchen / living room-dining space, the volume becomes permeable: steel rods and glass windows overlook a newly created staircase, which leads to the duplex’s lower level. The glass-rod curtain diffuses light throughout the house, enabling both transparency and privacy. “This volume,” says the arhitect, “plays on its transparency by using a rhythm between full and empty.”

In creating Bessborough House, _naturehumaine says it was challenged to open up a restrictive floorplan, all while preserving a “sense of spatial division.” Fait accompli.

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