A place to nourish the soul

We lavish love and money on our homes to make them mirrors of who we are and what we’d like to be. But, says Ottawa designer/builder Moneca Kaiser, there’s often a critical element missing.

“We don’t usually have a dreamy place, a place for reflection. Rooms always have a purpose: the kitchen is for preparing food, the bedroom is to sleep in.”

But a backyard pagoda or tea house, now there’s a room where you leave time and purpose at the entrance and let daydreams and reflection take hold. And that nourishes the soul as much as the kitchen feeds the body.

A former philosophy student and carpenter — her ability to see the big picture while remaining rooted in the real world is one of Kaiser’s distinguishing traits — she has been creating interior and exterior spaces for well over a dozen years.

The owner of Moneca Kaiser Design Build says outdoor projects rank high on her hit parade.

“People often want the inside of their home to look the same as everyone else’s. But outside, they let me be more playful.”

A glance at her portfolio underscores that.

Elegant fences, uncluttered landscaping, the occasional garden statue make these spaces ones you want to enter.

Sequestered all day in offices and spending our free time in shopping malls or trimming the lawn within an inch of its life, we’re “nature-deprived,” says Kaiser. “We’re always plugged into electronic devices; at least if we use our outdoor space well, we’re a bit more playful.”

Kaiser and I are sitting on a long, L-shaped banquette in her living room as she chats. It’s a comfortable home, an older bungalow in east-end Ottawa that she’s renovated in an open-concept style with gleaming hardwood floors and cool, white walls. An orange accent wall in the kitchen adds a vibrant splash.

It’s a home that welcomes you, much like Kaiser, who seems to accept people at face value.

When meeting clients for the first time, she uses questions to help define their design wants.

Do they throw big gatherings or smaller, more intimate get-togethers? Are they avid barbecue users? Would they like an outdoor kitchen or do they prefer preparing the salads indoors?

“What I try to do is realize what your vision is even if you don’t.”

As she speaks, her voice rises and falls in an unhurried pattern that suggests a relaxed attentiveness. It’s a surprise when she confesses to a hankering for instant gratification, a wish that the plants she selects would grow faster, the cedar she so loves acquire its aged patina just a bit sooner.

Kaiser, 46, is also a practical woman. You don’t survive as an independent designer/builder, especially when the market tightens up as it has since the economic convulsions of 2008, without both sides of your brain in full operational mode.

While her website (mkdb.ca) states, “From the first day I have simply wanted to do business nicely,” she doesn’t look askance at profit. Instead, she prefers an “enlightened kind of capitalism” where the bottom line includes not just financial but also environmental and social health.

And she’s handy with tools.

After three years studying philosophy at Carleton University, she wanted a more practical career and became a carpenter after completing an apprenticeship program at Algonquin College. Problem was, she often didn’t like the designs she was handed. Solution: Become a designer herself.

Along with managing her own construction projects, Kaiser still likes to swing a hammer, especially outdoors.

Her approach to design and to life intersects well with the desires of clients such as Joanne Hunt. She and her wife, Laura Divine, hired Kaiser to design and build a Zen-influenced backyard. (Kaiser has studied Ti Chi, meditation and art with a Chinese master for the past 27 years.)

Business owners and Zen practitioners themselves, Hunt says, “We had some pretty clear ideas of how to continue the peaceful, grounded space we have in the house into the yard. But when we met Moneca, we realized we were finally working with someone who could meet us halfway.”

Kaiser’s suggestions included an Asian tea house in one corner of the yard. Hunt and Divine thought at first it would be mostly ornamental, but they use it for everything from barbecues to business meetings.

“In the early morning,” says Hunt, “I go out there with my iPod and do some writing.”

Kaiser also integrated an Asian-themed cedar gate along with a clever fence design.

Neighbours had told Hunt and Divine that when they’d fenced their properties, the loss of air flow meant uncomfortably warm backyards. Kaiser solved that by designing a fence with movable louvres starting three feet off the ground. Even when open to allow a cross-breeze, they still provide some privacy.

The louvres also allow Hunt and Divine to chat with their neighbours, giving a fresh spin to poet Robert Frost’s words “Good fences make good neighbors.”

When she steps into her backyard, says Hunt, “I feel clear and grounded. Where (Moneca) chose to position things feels just right. When my mother comes here, she says, ‘I can feel my breath slow down.’ ”

Kaiser says structures such as pagodas, gazebos and tea houses, which can cost $12,000 or more to design and build, give a homeowner a new perspective on their property, including something charming to look at from inside.

She also relishes water features, like small ponds and waterfalls. They’re a calming oasis, particularly in a noisy, urban setting.

Perhaps surprising in a green advocate (she’s renovated her home to a near-Energy Star standard), Kaiser says decks made of composite recycled materials have their place. Cedar, however, remains king for her: “I love the smell.”

Front yards, she says, can benefit from sculptures and porches and their own little Zen gardens. By sharing such features with people beyond your front door, you also connect with the larger world.

A Calgary native, Kaiser is still inspired by the west’s big sky and the nearby Rockies. She knows she’s echoed that bracing openness in a backyard design when “I can breathe deeply there, like I’m seeing the mountains.”

She does, in fact, take a deep breath and stretches out her arms when we later stand in her own backyard with its big trees and little white shed. She hasn’t done any work on the yard yet, but she has ideas: maybe a courtyard — “You can do anything with a courtyard” — or a south-facing studio awash in natural light.

She may even incorporate the straight lines that now fascinate her as much as the graceful curves that to date have often characterized her fences and other outdoor designs.

“I love doing minimalist outdoor spaces. Outside, you have an opportunity to build something different, something that people will take care of for a long time.”

Connect with Patrick Langston |langston@xplornet.com