Modern sensibilities

Barry Hobin’s approach to design has evolved from a traditional 
Arts and Crafts sensibility to an ultra-modern one in which he experiments with light, glass 
and natural materials


Barry Hobin is an architect whose work is always in motion, always evolving. These days, the man who leads one of the largest, most accomplished architectural firms in the city is exploring modern designs that celebrate natural light and open spaces, floating staircases, sheets of glass and walls of textured stone.

Paring back is key in this new architectural language, an emerging vocabulary in which there is no set way to build a house. This a language in which ceilings define rooms, not walls, floating stairs and light interact to create drama and textures of different stones play against hardwood flooring and huge sheets of glass. The traditional exercise of designing room by room, adding moulding at floor and ceiling, adding panelling on walls is passé. Design is spare and simply elegant.

It is a new game of defining a home, where when done well, the exterior and interiors play against each other.

Hobin is not alone in this exploration, but he is the veteran, having garnered countless awards and a long list of commercial and condo successes during a 30-year career. Among professional colleagues of a similar mind are architects Christopher Simmonds, John Donkin, Linda Chapman, Anthony Bruni and James Colizza, as well as designer Gerhard Linse and the adventurous minds at Urban Keios.

This Ottawa River home has soaring windows, with the dining room, at left, doubling as a two-storey glass cube. Upstairs, there are catwalks and more windows. Photograph by Steve Clifford

Drive through older neighbourhoods and you will spot metal and glass homes next to traditional brick two-storeys with big front porches and stained glass.

Not surprisingly, slick modern designs for small urban lots dominate the urban infill category in the housing industry’s annual awards set for mid-October. Entries in the kitchen and bathroom categories also showed a decidedly modern face.

This home, on Island Park Drive, was built for a young family with three toddlers. The owners were on the same page as Hobin from the beginning when he proposed a modern look with plenty of glass fixtures and large windows. Photograph by Younes Bounhar

Hobin and his team submitted a pair of homes for award consideration, including a stone and glass home on a large parkside lot on Island Park Drive, owned by a 31-year-old financial planner and confirmed modernist and his young family.

The architect also submitted a Rockcliffe Park renovation, in which his client replaced a quaint white stucco garage and pool complex with a deceptively elegant spa and pool connected to the main house by a glass walk that mimics the grand hall at the National Gallery. The simplicity of the pool is sublime, the addition complements the stone and glass of the main house.

Many of the 230 contenders in the awards competition — in categories from renovations to custom homes — showed off a modern edge. Size matters not — there were small homes on slim lots in Hintonburg and custom homes with generous budgets, many of them on large lots between Rockcliffe and Island Park Drive.

The history of traditional designs suggests where to place a door, stairs and moulding. But there is no such common understanding when it comes to modern design, Hobin says.

“There is no pattern book here,” so modern homes become difficult to build because the trades sometimes don’t know what the architect is talking about, Hobin says. Nobody has ever done a staircase like ours and it is a challenge, says Hobin. Interior spaces are open and the house is designed as a whole, not room by room.

The home decor industry is part of the shift, showing up in Umbra’s snappy collection of potato peelers and picture frames and magazines like Dwell and Azure.

Add to that the growing appetite for sustainable green designs and you have the traditional-to-modern evolution that’s mirrored in Hobin’s own homes, from his early red brick rowhouses on James Street to a stately and traditional family home overlooking Dow’s Lake, where he and his wife, Nancy, lived for 26 years while raising their three children.

Today, the couple lives in a stone and glass home overlooking the Rideau Canal. Large plates of glass are “my link to the canal,” says Hobin, explaining the home’s floating stairs as a theatre of space and light.

“It is about experimentation and exploring,” says Hobin, who designed this house and the neighbouring O’Keefe house, which were built by Roca Homes’ Roberto Campagna. The architect and the builder have since collaborated on other modern homes.

Hobin’s current house is an example of the newest twist in a career’s design sensibilities that have changed not just Hobin residences, but the city itself.

His work has evolved from designing Arts and Crafts traditional homes for several builders, to producing Art Deco condos for Charlesfort’s Hudson development on Kent Street and on Richmond Road, west of Westboro. He’s 
designed condominiums and shops at Westboro Station and slick modern townhomes and condos for Minto in the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park.

Hobin notes how times have changed. “Currently seven out of 10 clients are looking for a modern expression, while 10 years ago, it would have been one in 10,” he says during an interview in his Pamilla Street offices in Little Italy.

Hobin first started the shift to super-clean lines with John Wallack on a large lot in Rockcliffe in 1986. “John wanted a house to suit his art collection,” he says. The ideas continued with the award-winning Zambonini house near the Cedarhill Golf Course. It connects flowing inside spaces to the pool and outdoor cooking area.

There were more honours for a house of glass on the Ottawa River in 2009, and later, for the O’Keefe house that is Hobin’s next-door neighbour.

The Ottawa River house, owned by a media consultant and her entrepreneur husband, is almost all glass, facing the water. The dining room is a two-storey glass cube. “It is basically a glass house and we now really embrace the idea,” says the consultant, who admits she initially wanted a traditional, hefty wooden staircase.


This Ottawa River home has soaring windows, with the dining room, at left, doubling as a two-storey glass cube. Upstairs, there are catwalks and more windows. Photograph by Gordon King


Her husband first thought he wanted a log house when he bought the river lot — which then had a bungalow on it. They did some renovations, but then subscribed to Architectural Digest, started touring homes and caught the modern bug.

Meanwhile, the 31-year-old who is waiting to see if his Island Park glass and stone home will win favour at the October design awards, was first inspired by another Hobin project, the Zambonini bungalow. The father of three toddlers needed no nudging to buy into the lexicon of glass, stone and floating staircases.

“We were on the same page from the start,” he says. “I was more drawn to modern lines when we started to look at houses. We couldn’t find anything that suited us. We decided we wanted to have a hand in part of the design process because we intend to live in the house for a long time.

“My favourite part of the house is the glass and the light. It faces a park and the yard continues into the park,” says the father. The family culled down their possessions when moving from a contemporary townhome into the 4,000-square-foot home that was finished by Michael Courdin, a designer who has worked with Hobin over the years.

Back in his office, Barry Hobin admits that for any one of these creations, if given a blank piece of paper, he would design a completely different home, with his current thinking about modern sensibilities.

“We are always moving forward, experimenting,” he says. “That is part of the excitement.”


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