a collection of wooden a frame buildings in a forest

Montreal’s Atelier L’Abri Brings Passive House to the Masses

The young firm’s instagram-ready A-frames and minimalist interiors belie serious sustainability credentials.

The photogenic Nordic-influenced aesthetic of architects Francis Labrecque and Nicolas Lapierre has taken over Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards since they founded their firm, Atelier L’Abri, less than a decade ago, but the Montreal studio’s work is more than mood-board minimalism. Projects like Quebec’s third Passive House and a complex of A-frame micro-cabins demonstrate that style can be a powerful tool for ecological change. By making sustainable design look beautiful and effortless, the designers believe they can persuade homeowners and developers to pursue greener projects. 

a group portrait of Nicolas Lapierre, Francis Pelletier, and Francis M. Labrecque
From left to right: Nicolas Lapierre, Francis Pelletier, and Francis M. Labrecque met and formed Atelier L’Abri while they were students at the Université de Montréal. Pelletier now leads a spin-off construction company. COURTESY RONNY PHOTOGRAPHY

High Performance, Done Simply

Labrecque and Lapierre completed their master’s degrees in architecture at the Université de Montréal in 2013. During their studies, they founded Atelier L’Abri with a fellow student, Francis Pelletier, who now leads a spin-off construction company. Along the way, Labrecque interned with Berlin’s Ester Bruzkus Architekten, and Lapierre worked in Bjarke Ingels Group’s New York office. 

L’Abri’s work resists grand gestures, opting instead for performance over the long haul. “Simplicity to start off with and then quality at the end, rather than over-the-top complexity and then cheap results,” says Lapierre, explaining the practice’s mantra.

the exterior of a white house in a meadow of yellow flowers
Saltbox Passive House was L’Abri’s breakout sustainable design project. Only the third home in Quebec to achieve the Phius Passive House standard, its triple-glazed windows and thick layer of cellulose thermal insulation mean the building requires very little energy to heat, even in the Canadian winter. COURTESY RAPHAËL THIBODEAU

Looking at a project’s carbon footprint as a whole means not only specifying high-performance mechanical systems but assessing the embodied carbon footprint of materials. For L’Abri, that means avoiding concrete and plastics where possible and favoring regional materials like local timber and granite from quarries in Quebec and Vermont.

“It’s not easy,” Labrecque adds. “You have to ask, ‘Where are the materials from? What are they made of? What’s the life cycle?’ But if you do that analysis well, then you can be confident that your house is a good answer to current problems.” 

the interior of a white-walled kitchen with stools at a counter
The natural wood and white surfaces of the Saltbox Passive House’s interior speak to L’Abri’s Nordic design sensibility and demonstrate that highly energy-efficient buildings can feel as airy and comfortable as conventional ones. COURTESY RAPHAËL THIBODEAU

Making Passive House Possible

Completed in June 2020, L’Abri’s Saltbox Passive House in Bromont, Quebec, was the studio’s breakout sustainable construction project. Named after a colonial building style popularized in New England, the 3,100-square-foot, single-family principal residence for four outside Montreal earned a Phius certification, making it only the third passive building ever completed in the province.

Sustainability hawks prize passive buildings for their super-insulated envelopes, airtight construction, high-performance glazing, elimination of thermal bridges, and ventilation with heat recovery—all of which dramatically reduce buildings’ energy costs and operational carbon footprints. 

“Saltbox was definitely a turning point for the office. It’s very hard to achieve the Passive House standard in Quebec because we’re so far north,” Lapierre explains. “But the certification got people talking about high-performance buildings. Also, it demonstrated that sustainability and good looks can coexist.”

the interior of a small restaurant with wooden walls and other furniture
The A-frame cabins of Farouche Tremblant, an organic farm and eco-resort nestled in the Quebec wilderness, were a hit on social media and set the stage for L’Abri to begin taking larger commissions. COURTESY RAPHAËL THIBODEAU

Picture-Perfect A-Frames at Farouche Tremblant

In July last year, the duo completed a cluster of dreamy A-frame glamping structures at Farouche Tremblant, a 100-acre organic farm in the Laurentians. This commission helped Labrecque and Lapierre pivot toward larger, multi-unit residential projects. 

Carving out a niche for holistic mixed-use development, they’re currently working on master plans for three small neighborhood-scale projects in towns and villages across Quebec. One, Cohabitat Nidazo in Frelighsburg, is a residential development that may feature as many as 45 homes clustered around a communal garden. Instead of a traditional developer, L’Abri is working for a nonprofit formed by the town’s residents to purchase the land and build an ecologically minded community.

a dining room with a woodstove burning, large windows, and a forest outside
The common areas at Farouche Tremblant are designed with the firm’s signature restrained hand, letting local materials—and scenic views—speak for themselves. COURTESY RAPHAËL THIBODEAU

They’ll take the lessons learned from Saltbox and apply them to their new projects. “If we can get to 60 percent of the way towards a Passive House and repeat that 30 times, maybe that’s the best way to have the biggest impact,” says Labrecque. 

Even as their ambitions grow, the pair’s designs are likely to stay rooted in the local vernacular, says Lapierre. “More often than not, when we look at what’s the most sustainable solution, we come back to the tried-and-true details that were already there. As it turns out, there are very good reasons why these things were built a certain way in the first place.” 

Lapierre pauses and shrugs: “You know, maybe pitched roofs just make sense in our climate.” 

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]