Design Diary

A personal review of design creations.

House Bras


Just outside Antwerp, DDM Architectuur worked on a discreet monolithic house surrounded by water and nature.


House BRAS is designed to blend into its surrounding natural landscape. Located in Brasschaat, on a lush green site abutting a pond in the middle of an old allotment in the suburbs of Antwerp, its meandering plan allows daylight to penetrate during all seasons and at any time of the day while achieving unobstructed views of the garden.


The ground floor consists of three main zones – the living area with an open kitchen, an exercise area with a swimming pool and sauna, and a room for music offering a panoramic view of the pond.

These zones are physically and visually connected with glazed passages along four closed blocks covered in dark larch veneer leading to ancillary spaces such as stairs, pantry, entrance, and bedrooms.

On the first floor, DDM Architectuur positioned the master suite with views of the tree crowns and a library overlooking the pond through the double-height music room.


Technical spaces and car parks are located underground and are accessible through a ramp that appears to cut through the pond. Trusses are integrated into the roof slopes, making it possible to realize large column-free cut-outs in the natural stone envelope. These openings are finished with aluminum joinery.


To emphasize the monolithic character of the house, the 5th façade is also clad with muschelkalk (shell-bearing limestone) natural stone slabs. The slabs in 3 different sizes are placed in a directionless Roman pattern so that the roofs and facades fuse together enabling the house to blend into the landscape like a stone in a forest.


Pictures by Lenzer

Bigwin Island Club Cabins


Land of indigenous population for centuries, developed as luxury retreat since 1922, the Bigwin Island hosts now brand new club cabins by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects.

Nestled among maple, pine and ash trees, the first three cabins of a planned community of 40 have a sweeping view, down to the golf course and the lake beyond.


The 40 cabins will follow three design templates, each inspired by a different type of landscape found on the island: linear on the lake, courtyard in the woods, and pinwheel on the meadow. 

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects’ design process begins by listening to the land. The cabins stand on storied ground. Named after Ojibway Chief John Bigwin, the island was historically a home to sacred spaces, a place of significance to the region’s Indigenous population. The first golf course on Bigwin Island was built in 1922, and for decades the island was the site of a glittering luxury resort — the summer home of Canadian industrial titans, Hollywood stars, and even the Dutch royal family.


This development is part of property owner Jack Wadsworth’s plan for the island’s revitalisation. Wadsworth nixed a proposed 150-room hotel in favour of 40 guest houses, ranging from 114 to 125 square metre each, and launched a design competition for the project. The brief was a project that would respect the island’s history, the Muskoka region’s distinctive architectural aesthetic, and the environment, employing practical construction techniques and maximizing energy efficiency and sustainability.

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects won the competition with a project that expresses archetypal concepts. Exquisitely crafted from natural materials, with a quietly assertive design, the cabins reference the big, sheltering roofs of Muskoka’s historic cottages and boathouses, and even evoke the interior of a canoe. Each cabin is assembled from a simple kit of parts: a screened-in porch, a deck, a hearth, a great room, a sleeping box, and a roof, all fitted seamlessly together.


An extruded box, clad in shiplapped wood, adjoins a glass pavilion holding an open plan living and dining space, which is topped by a deep hip roof, clad with cedar shingles. The exterior is understated, and the interior is dramatic, airy, and gracious — the main living space of the pavilion rises to a peak. Shiplapped wood also lines the interior of the bed box and hearth, enhancing the seamlessness between indoors and out. The room is naturally lit from above via a periscope window in the gable. The bedrooms and bathrooms (two of each) are spare and elegant. 


Although sophisticated in appearance, the buildings employ practical construction techniques. The roof structure is made from ordinary engineered trusses, elevated through meticulous design into something beautiful. An important principle in practice for MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple is to touch the land lightly, to minimize disruption of the landscape. This simplicity of craft is, in part, a response to the significant challenges of building on an island during the short cold period between the fall and spring golf seasons. Environmental sustainability is also built into their construction. Materials and labour were locally sourced. The geothermal heating system harvests heat from the lake and radiates it from the floors. In the summer, a natural, passive ventilation system channels hot air up and away through the peaked roof. 


The ambition of this project transcends the individual guesthouses; Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple is bringing to Bigwin Island a vision of community. The buildings engage not only with the landscape, but with each other. They are sited in clusters, where their transparency and openness put them in conversational relationships. The spaces between them are small enough to allow neighbours to wave each other over; some will encircle meadows ideally sized for cookouts and children’s games.


At once familiar and experimental, respectful and assertive, and durable enough to stand up to the demanding climate of their location while elegantly referencing its layered heritage and beauty, the Bigwin Island cabins offer a balanced, inventive and sustainable response to a complex architectural challenge.

Pictures by Doublespace Photography.

The Yule Mountain Boutique Hotel

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In the Chinese province of Hangzhou, a modest farmhouse went through a complex transformation over two years to become a contemporary boutique hotel.

In the small village of Baisha, by the Taihuyuan creek surrounded by Tianmu Mountains, the original 4-storey was facing south and against the mountains. The building was using an imitation of blue brick veneers, flush gable roofs and exquisitely carved timber doors and windows, forming the 'traditional Chinese' farmhouse style. The night was at 200 Yuan per person. The courtyard was located at the north side of the main with a bamboo forest separating it from the neighbours.

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The development of tourism has pushed the owners of this humble farmhouse to totally transform the property into the Yule Mountain Boutique Hotel.

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Continuation Studio was asked to renovate the site with architecture and interior design. The first challenge was “reunite with landscape” by combining an exclusive location with the benefits of the surrounding nature and avoid somehow the very noisy road just nearby. 

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Landscape, as spiritual and physical sustenance of Chinese people, is the everlasting spatial subject for space creators to borrow ideas from. Gardens located in the southern urban realm, always have sublime landscape inside, separating itself with the exterior carnal world. 

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Therefore, it was needed to build the boutique hotel into a "small universe" which is independent of external world. Guests need to walk through a deep entrance to get there, after which landscape would be the only thing you live with.

Following the existing height of the terrain, the studio divided the original external space into three parts: the external provincial road, the inner courtyard and the mountains on the slope.

The outermost part includes provincial road, the entrance and parking lot. The raised terrace, as the guiding space for entering the site, isolated site with external world. The inner courtyard which faces the main building is the significant place for creating the living atmosphere.

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The circulation of the original entrance was very straight. Guests would cross the provincial road directly to the inner courtyard, piercing the main landscape of the lobby. The process of entering the inner space from the external noisy highway is lack of buffering as well, making it is difficult to quickly involve into the peaceful atmosphere of the boutique hotel.

The shallow pool in front of the lobby forms the main part of the inner courtyard. It explains the 'Emptiness’, meaning Close to nothing in Zenism, and also reflects the mountain and sky in distance. 

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The circulation in the inner courtyard is set around the pool. The bluestone paved platform is set below the porch of the main building, where the circulation starts and enters the rightward to the tea pavilion which has fine wood grille façade and sloping eaves. 

 The tea pavilion on the waterfront, the veranda, the sky and mountains are reflected in the water. The horizontal volume obstructs the external interference and cooperates with the view of the distant forest.

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The number of rooms reduced from 30 to 15 and the reconfiguration of the plan makes each bathroom has landscape viewing. 


The renovation of Yule mountain boutique hotel took more than 2 years from the design to the formal operation. 


Pictures by Yilong Zhao, Jiujiang Fan, Hongfei Zhao

The No Footprint House


With a passive climate control, the No Footprint House, has been designed to respond to the vast tropical rain forest along the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

The No Footprint House (NFH) is located in Ojochal, a small village in Costa Rica. The building by A-01 Architects is organised around a central service core, which includes all machinery, intelligence, closets, bathrooms, kitchen, and laundry area. The compression of utilities in one compact unit enables an open floor plan all around the core. Moreover, it contributes to the building's efficiency in terms of assembly and maintenance. 


Additional furniture pieces are “plugged” into the double-layered facade, which is created by the vertical structural columns and the inclined outer enclosures. The inclination decreases the direct impact of sunlight and precipitation, which protects the elevated floorplan from overheating and splashing water. Façade panels can be opened or closed individually in order to regulate views and exposure, augment or reduce air flows, create privacy and security. They convert interior to exterior spaces and play with the dynamic among nature and the built environment, one of the key features of tropical architecture.

The house in Ojochal has been developed as a prototype for serial production, based on a larger toolbox of residential typologies. It was prefabricated in the Central Valley of Costa Rica and transported to the target location on one single truck. The process of making and inhabiting the prototype creates a valuable experience to optimize the series, which will be available as of 2020.

In its initial phase, the NFH comes in three different sizes that can be auto-configured with regards to the internal distribution and connections, material finishes and desired level of services: from “tiny” (36m2) to mid-size (81m2) and family home (108m2). Each building is customised from a catalogue of prefabricated components, the first of its kind in Central America.

The selection of all elements and materials is based on a thorough investigation regarding the origin, processing, and environmental footprint. Component options that form part of the NFH catalogue include structural wood and steel, different types of louvers and perforated panels for the facades, bamboo and wood ceilings, as well as mineral and synthetic finishes for walls and floors. They can be chosen according to the specific needs and likes of each client.

In Ojochal, the NFH-108 was built as a floating steel structure with wooden finishes. It is based on a structural grid size of 12 x 9 meters, which contains a combined living and dining area, two bathrooms, two bedrooms, and a multifunctional terrace.


The private rooms can be closed off through different layers of glass sliders and “curtain walls” in order to allow for changing degrees of spatial separation or social integration. The upper section of the building remains permanently open in order to assure unobstructed air flows and cross-ventilation. Panels of mosquito netting prevent insects from entering. The house is connected to the public water and energy grid, which is powered almost entirely by renewable resources in Costa Rica. Only water is heated locally through solar power, which is harvested on top of the roof.

Auto-sufficient building configurations are available for off-grid locations, as well as a completely de- and re-mountable kit of parts. The NFH is designed to blend with its natural surroundings and minimize the impact of construction on the environment. At the same time, it offers a broad range of adjustable, affordable and replicable solutions. The project seeks for integral sustainability in terms of its environmental, economic, social and spatial performance.

Pictures by Fernando Alda, Manduca Audiovisual.