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WHEN Cohlmeyer Architects won the award of excellence in the interior design category at the recent Prairie Design Awards for a pair of downtown lofts, jury members admired the project's "daring contrast of modern interior with historic exterior."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/06/2006 (5908 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHEN Cohlmeyer Architects won the award of excellence in the interior design category at the recent Prairie Design Awards for a pair of downtown lofts, jury members admired the project’s “daring contrast of modern interior with historic exterior.”

These two owner-designed spaces in the Exchange District’s Travellers Building once held offices and boardrooms of dark wood. Now they’re filled with aluminum, glass, steel and plastic. Indeed, the structure that was cutting-edge as one of Winnipeg’s first steel-frame buildings in 1907 remains so, with the addition of these chic digs for the new urbanist.

The project was named Big Brother-Little Sister according to the relative size of the two condos, and the family-like relationship between the two architectural interns behind the design.

Johanna Hurme lives with her husband in the smaller 1,100-square-foot space, while her longtime friend and co-worker at Cohlmeyer Architects, Sasa Radulovic, lives with his wife in the neighbouring 1,800-square-foot space.

“As architects, we always talk about revitalizing downtown,” says Hurme, in her bright white living room that shares a single open space with the kitchen and dining room. She was first intrigued by the building’s residential spaces when she heard about them in early 2003. She knew Radulovic was also looking for a new home, and found it easy to convince him to live downtown instead of in one of the older residential areas he was looking at.

“I was thinking about maybe Fort Rouge or Wolseley,” says Radulovic, “but when Johanna approached me about this, the conversation took about a minute.”

The renovations began simultaneously in May 2004. “They were designed as a pair from the beginning,” says Hurme. Each space played off the other, and ideas were passed back and forth between owners, neither of whom is really new to urban apartment living.

“We both grew up in apartments,” says Hurme – she in Helsinki and Radulovic in Sarajevo. “In Europe there’s a different perception of the amount of space people need to live in. This is bigger than the home I grew up in, and that had four people in it.”

But with little space to waste, Hurme and Radulovic focused on what was particularly important to them. Beyond Hurme’s kitchen area, for example, the bedroom is practically an island surrounded by a shower and sauna room, a water closet, and a spacious bathtub in a room of its own.

During a tour, Hurme defends herself against Radulovic’s teasing about why she needs three bathrooms for such a small space: “This project made us think about how we really want to live. I don’t like showers. And the sauna, well that’s cultural,” says the Finnish native, explaining her insistence on a tub and sauna.

For his part, Radulovic’s fridge is twice the size of Hurme’s and much of his extra space is given over to a big kitchen island and an eating area, which is separated from the open space by canvas panels hanging from the 14-foot ceiling.

The panels also help enclose an office and storage area that sits on a steel-framed mezzanine that runs along one of the internal walls. Hurme has a similar mezzanine in her space.

“We could do whatever we wanted, whatever we needed,” says Radulovic, remembering the appeal of an open space to work with. “And these spaces are easy to build in, as long as you stay away from the walls.”

Like the other spaces in the Travellers Building, the outside walls in these two have plenty of windows, which, explains Hurme, influenced the concept of a central area in each space to build around. “We put the essential mechanical functions, the kitchen and bathroom areas, in the centre and the living spaces then flow around them,” she says.

Because the central structure stands with open space above it and no connection to the ceiling, it needed trusses built in so that cabinets could hang securely. “The contractor hadn’t built anything like that,” says Radulovic. “But now we see it’s something that works and can suggest it to clients.”

The structure is just one of many innovations that the design duo incorporated as they worked with contractors throughout the project.

In his bathroom, Radulovic points out another: the narrow aluminum grill covering the fan. When he priced it, a ready-made grill was $600. “So I got pieces of aluminum and adhesive and made it myself. It cost about $15 and took an hour to make,” he says.

The hands-on design ethic Hurme and Radulovic brought to the project not only saved them money, but has led to new commissions. Their firm is now working on “box home” projects in other spaces in the same building. Following the example of the Big Brother-Little Sister designs, the compact new spaces are planned with practical, attractive rooms around a central “wet space,” treating the home as a customized container for downtown living.

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