When his guest house burned down in 2017, Canadian food and beverage entrepreneur Scott Friedmann treated the catastrophe as an opportunity. He turned to Toronto-based architecture firm Partisans to design a distinctive replacement. Fold House, sited on a heritage estate in southern Ontario that includes a historic Georgian Revival mansion, a coach house, and a barn, represents a leap into the future while respecting the context of the storied property.
A collaborative effort by Partisans founders Alexander Josephson, Pooya Baktash, and Jonathan Friedman, Intl. Assoc. AIA, the two-story, 4,473-square-foot guest house features a pool pavilion that hugs the sloping contours of the site. A 90-foot-long beam supports the pavilion’s cantilevered roof, which appears to float above an 80-foot-long sliding glass wall running alongside a lap pool. Even more striking is the building’s signature element: a swooping fold in the pavilion roof that cradles a staircase up to the green roof. Twenty feet deep, 10 feet high, and 24 feet wide, the fold and stair visually delineate the transition from the pool area to the guest house and breezeway.
The idea of the fold came naturally given the nature of the site, Josephson says. “You’re on the side of the escarpment: There’s a cliff and a plateau where the house is, and there are hills and a series of waterfalls and canyons behind it. It looks like this idyllic forested spot, but there’s a lot of relief. And then the fold is a cut into the hill.” The roof form also reflects the water motif, he says: “The fold is like a response to the softness of the program, which is water—it’s like a wave.”
Partisans used Robert McNeel & Associate’s Rhinoceros software and Grasshopper to design the roof. To achieve the roof’s swooping curve, Partisans devised a self-supporting thin shell structure made with sheets of steel that were bent on site and welded to a waffle of thicker plates. Under this structural framework is the “cradle,” a secondary waffle system of marine-grade plywood that was fabricated on a CNC machine, pieced together on site, and fastened to the underside of the swooping steel structure.
“We created a prototype in our office almost [18 months] before construction started, proved it to the client, and then spent a long time refining it,” Josephson says.
The pavilion ceiling and cradle are finished with solid-sawn, straight-grained white oak, bent to follow the curve of the cradle. Partisans sourced the flexible oak from Pure Timber, a specialty supplier based in Gig Harbor, Wash. (For the straight portions of the ceiling, Partisans acquired untreated white oak strips from a different source.)
Pure Timber modifies hardwood lumber into a soft and pliable material that can be hand-bent as long as the wood remains moist. The company then cuts and prepares the wood, shipping it vacuum packed to enable manipulation on site. “It remains flexible” until it dries, Josephson says. At that point, the wood assumes its bent shape permanently.
The proprietary modification process consists of several steps, according to Pure Timber’s website. First, it steams the wood under pressure in a long autoclave until the material is softened and pliable. Next, the company compresses the wood in the longitudinal dimension in a long press to 75% to 85% of its original length. This collapses the cell structure of the wood like an accordion. “You can think of the normally rigid cell walls as sliding into or folding over on themselves,” according to Pure Timber’s website. After resting in a second press, the wood remains flexible enough to be cold-bent by hand, without further steaming, as long as the pieces are kept moist. “The wood is flexible until dried, so it can be bent onto or over a fixture while wet,” the website explains. “The dried wood is rigid, and is identical to the original wood, except that by now it has probably taken on some cool new shape.”
The compression-bending process yields a superior result, Josephson says: “ A more traditional process of steam-bending lengthens the original wood fibers past their original lengths when bent, often leading to splits in the wood and limited workability.”
The white oak arrived at Fold House in 4- to 7-foot lengths, custom sawn to a width of 3 inches by PureTimber. The contractor, Sunfield Renovations, hand-bent the boards into place and fastened them with hidden deck screws to the cradle. The wood was left unfinished in order to allow it to expand and contract uniformly in response to changing outdoor humidity levels.
Compression bending is more commonly used on wood designated for furniture or musical instruments. “[Our design is] about finding something that’s meant for something else and applying it to architecture,” Josephson says. “That’s important in architecture. If we solely rely on the building industry to tell us how to build, we’ll continue to build the way they built the pyramids.”
This story has been updated since first publication.