Drawing inspiration from African mud huts, Canadian artist Christopher Griffin transformed his newly renovated home into a four-sided canvas using concrete panels. The task of renovating a 1901 confectionery into a modern prairie style residence with a commercial extension required careful planning and a clear vision—and hand-carved concrete panels. Griffin wanted his home to include a practical live-in space and a commercial space for his wife as an organic spa and boutique.

He approached Andrew Reeves, principle architect and owner of Linebox Studio Inc., Toronto, to design his new home. The project needed to include Griffin’s artistic vision and sustainable and reclaimed elements.

Reeves helped retain the footprint of the original structure which once served as a grocery store, while modernizing the rest of the home. Reeves says it was essential to create an architectural design that would produce cohesion between the existing structure, the new design elements, and the art that Griffin wanted to incorporate into the exterior walls of the building using concrete panels. Finding an appropriate construction medium that would display Griffin’s artistic vision on the exterior of the house was crucial. Incorporating sustainable elements and reclaimed materials was also a priority in the design from the outset.

It was also important that the entire renovation remained as green as possible while staying within budget, so Reeves decided to use fly ash concrete for the exterior. “Although fly ash offers environmental advantages, it also improves the performance and quality of concrete,” says Reeves. Fly ash affects the plastic properties of concrete by improving workability, reducing water demand, segregation, and bleeding, and also lowering heat of hydration. Reeves notes that fly ash also increases compressive strength and sulphate resistance while reducing permeability, corrosion of reinforcing steel, and alkali-aggregate reaction.

Overall, fly ash concrete was used for its sustainable qualities and Reeves believed it was also good for engraving. Plans for renovation included creating cedar framing integrated with Griffin’s request for exterior concrete panels, tied together with horizontal wood accents made from floorboards from the original house and aluminum reveals. Contractors gutted the new house and installed new plumbing, electrical, ductwork, windows, doors, walls, floors, and subfloors. The footprints for both floors were kept intact and major changes were made only to the exterior.

Griffin had about 15 minutes for each engraving before the concrete hardened on the panels. Using a bone knife from an emu-like bird called a cassowary, he uniquely engraved each individual concrete panel—the west wall is water, depicting a fish; the north is earth, depicting a caribou; the east is air, depicting birds; and the south is fire, depicting the sun.

The engravings were the final piece of the renovation. “Our exterior home renovation is complete and I am thrilled to announce that our project was awarded both the Green Renovation of the Year and Best Housing Detail at the Ottawa Housing Awards 2009, says Griffin.