For nearly a decade, John Leroux walked past a shady, overgrown backyard, the last undeveloped residential lot in downtown Fredericton, dreaming of the home he would build for his growing family. Now, against the odds, he’s done it. Its playful, stretched-out silhouette echoes the neighbourhood’s cookie-cutter Victorian aesthetic. An airy, contemporary interior strikes a delicate balance between heritage and modernity, nature and structure.
An architect and art historian, John knew his wife, physiotherapist Meghan Leroux, wanted to live in the city’s historic residential district, near where she was born and grew up. But she knew her husband yearned to start from scratch. “I think every architect’s dream is to be able to build their own house,” she says.
“You’re not going to build an apartment building here, are ya?” he asked John, who responded, “No, just a single-family house for me and my family.” The owner hesitated. “Promise?” he asked. “Yeah,” John replied, and the pair shook hands. “He told me later, he’s been asked about once a week for about 40 years. He’s probably been asked a thousand times.”
Their agreement has one clause reflecting the property’s unusual sale: the back third of the lot will belong to the original owner, who grows rhubarb against a weathered green storage barn, as long as he’s alive. “It was probably the only time a real estate lawyer had to write ‘rhubarb’ on a contract,” he grins.
As he designed the house, John worked with Saint John, N.B. architecture firm Acre, which Meghan credits with helping them take a step back from the process.
“‘How do you live? What’s important to you in a home?’ They asked us these general questions,” she says. “I wanted to be able to see nature from everywhere. I wanted to be able to see my kids in the backyard. I wanted more… storage,” she laughs.
Construction started in April 2013. Fredericton builder and contractor Paul Arsenault executed the project top-to-tail.
John was hands-on until the home was finished about a year later, choosing materials and helping manage construction delays. Meghan says the building process wasn’t nearly as stressful as it is for many couples.
“He and I have similar taste, and I knew I could trust him with a lot of things. He brought me two or three samples of things, instead of being completely overwhelmed,” she says.
While some modern homes built in the historic area meet with protest and bad blood, John says he tried to build a house that would be a good neighbour.
“It isn’t a chrome and stainless steel cube,” he says. “Just like I care about the heritage environment, I also care about injecting new energy. We have to protect the old, but we should also do things that are new and of value.”
The home’s main living space is open concept, with the living room spilling onto a large deck through nearly 5-metre long sliding doors spanning the entire back wall. The floor is poured concrete, and an art wall of boldface New Brunswick artists and scenes unfolds above sleek living room couches.
“I laid them out on computer and I got my friend Greg, at the Beaverbrook [Art Gallery] to hang them. It was fun,” says John. “The mixture of portraits and colour, black-and-white, it energizes me, makes me feel good about New Brunswick.”
Outside a west-facing window is a Japanese-style pond of floating lilies, home to two koi carp and three goldfish the family plans to relocate indoors for the winter. When it rains, a waterfall streams off the house’s flat rear roof, past the tall stairwell windows, filling the pond.
“It’s really started to feel like a home,” says Meghan, who moved her family into the house in 2014. “I love the openness of it, and the feeling of nature. With the water feature, when it rains, you get this huge fountain off the roof. It’s pretty serene.”
Off the main entryway, the ground floor has a family room at the front of the house, which doubles as a guest room. The house is designed so you can live on one floor; after a serious car accident in 2006 ,John used a wheelchair. It took years of recovery before he was able to walk again.
“We wanted to make sure every room was used by the family,” says Meghan. “We spend most of our time in the main room, but even in the front room where the kids hang out, it’s still connected.”
On the second floor, John splurged on a huge unbroken window for his front studio, but saved money on a dandelion-puffball lighting fixture from Ikea. When lit at night, the room functions as a friendly lighthouse for the neighbourhood, casting arching shadows on the sidewalk and pedestrians below.
For a house that cost far less than a high-end template house of the same size, its real beauty is in its charming, ingenious details. A secret passage connects the Leroux daughters’ bedrooms, while a hallway library built of plywood and plumbing conduits holds the family’s huge collection of art books, comic books, history, and fiction.
The first floor has a large but practical laundry room-plus-bathroom, including double sinks under an enormous architectural mirror (made out of a window frame rescued from a heritage chapel at the University of New Brunswick) and a huge soaker tub that converts to a shower. The master bedroom, at the back of the house, is simple, with Ikea closets against one wall, a large window facing the yard, and a half-wall behind the bed allowing for privacy.
In 2014, the house won the Mayor’s Award for building of the year from the city of Fredericton, but the Leroux family says their most rewarding reception has been from their community. After all, from securing the property to building the house on a budget, each step was a risky one.
“Every house I lived in before, I don’t think there was any younger than 1920s. I love the character and I love old homes. But I was always drawn to this too,” says Meghan. “It’s not about trying to copy an old house,” says John. “Sometimes people go for full Victorian with a quarter octagonal tower with a stained-glass window in front, but it looks fake. It looks like a shellacked version of something old.”
For those carefully observing the house from the street, it looks stretched vertically, as if a child drew it. According to John, the window placement is a great example of where the house is quietly, subtly, subversively modern.
“When you really stop and look at it, you’ll see where I’m pushing the envelope,” he says. “I’m not doing punch windows that are random and symmetrical, that have nothing to do with the inside. All the windows, the fenestration and the doors are related to the function of what the inside wants.”
The result is that rare beast, cozy and family-friendly while sleek and pared down.
“It’s a good neighbour. A lot of buildings aren’t. I didn’t want it to be a selfish house,” says John.