Perched on the side of a hill overlooking the Grand River and downtown Galt, the Grand House has been an icon for the City of Cambridge as well as the Waterloo Architecture community.
Architecture students design many hypothetical projects during their years at school, but only a few fortunate ones have the opportunity to design a real-scale project and plan and raise money to build it.
That was the case for many students who took on the vision of Chantal Cornu, a grad student who took the class out of the classroom.
There was a lack of student housing in the City of Cambridge when the School of Architecture was relocated from the University of Waterloo’s Main Campus in 2004.
Chantal’s objective was to build the first non-profit co-op student residence in Cambridge.
Environmental considerations were taken. The Grand House is an energy-efficient straw bale building with in-floor radiant heating that stands in communion with its context,
respecting the land underneath, collecting rain water for the toilets and utilizing recycled material such as old doors and maple hardwood flooring that was once used in a local school’s basketball court.
With the support of the school, the city, the local community and people from the construction industry, this eco-friendly house of fourteen bedrooms, four bathrooms with vast common areas became possible. And in 2008 it officially opened its doors.
For those who volunteered during its construction, it was an experience like none other to gain an intimacy with materials and the process of construction. For those who have lived in the house, some while it was still under construction, it has been a privilege.
As an architecture student, one gets a subtle feeling of confidence when stepping into the Grand House knowing that someone like you was able to accomplish such a dream, and that people believed so deeply in that dream that they generously donated their time and money.
That confidence certainly had a positive influence on me.
In 2012, after four years of living co-operatively with schoolmates, but certainly under financial hardship, the co-op was dissolved and the Grand House was put up for sale. For students still involved with the house and those living in it, it was a bittersweet moment. Still, we knew in many ways the Grand House had been an absolute success. Schoolmates became friends and those friends shared everything; from creative ideas, points of view, food, laughter and even some tears.
Sharing these is a vital part of growing up and getting to know yourself and the person, not just the architect, you want to become. That is the life lesson many took from the Grand House, which I believe was certainly its major purpose.
Later in 2013, the Grand House had a glimpse of hope when Nadir Ansari, CEO of Isherwood Geostructural Engineers, came back into the picture. Back in the fall of 2007, Chantal’s team learned that their third design concept for ‘hillside’ foundations was unfeasible.
In an attempt to find a solution, a contractor connected Chantal with Nadir. His company solved the foundation challenges with a novel application of Micropile Foundations and so the construction started moving forward again.
Nadir was unaware that the Grand House had financial issues and therefore was put on sale until a local sculpture artist, Heather Kocsis, asked Nadir if he was interested in commissioning a fourth piece of work for the Isherwood office in Mississauga.
Nadir was delighted, so he accepted. Since the sculpture would be about the Grand House he invited Heather to go say hello and take a tour of the house, to which Heather responded, “I can’t. It’s up for sale.”
Disappointed about the closing of the house and curious to find out what happened, Nadir made contact with Chantal and Grand House financier David Walsh.
Knowing it was solidly grounded with the School of Architecture, as well as structurally into the stable hill, Nadir decided, with the support of Cornu and Walsh, to get involved and resurrect the project known as Grand House.
Nadir and his wife Laura’s original intent was to just spruce the place up a little, but upon closer inspection, they found that numerous areas of the house needed deeper than superficial surgery. Nadir and Laura enlisted the help of Sebastien Lefevre, an architect with whom they had worked before, and fix-up work began.
Frozen pipes, electrical problems, wood rot and other hidden issues made the renovation a significantly greater undertaking than expected, but work was completed April 30th for a May 1st opening for the summer term.
Former Architecture School attendees Nathaniel Andersen and myself got involved with the project and helped stoke the enrollment and organization respectively.
I, who previously lived in the house for three years during my graduate degree, will live at the house and serve as Mentor/Manager for the foreseeable future, while the Grand House springs back to life.
Nadir envisions a lot of collaboration with the University of Waterloo and the School of Architecture in the future, hoping that student projects will, once again, continue to enhance the interiors and exteriors of the Grand House.
Nadir also envisions sharing his entrepreneurial experiences with budding architects, hoping to share his thoughts around how we need to think more like business people to be truly successful in society.
He also shares my passion for social housing and hopes to dovetail some microhousing concepts into the Grand House over time. It’s like a canvas waiting for paint!
By Tiara Aponte
Original article: Reintroducing: The Grand House