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Our [glass] house

This Balzan apartment is the home of architects Steven and Patricia Risiott from A Collective, partners both in work and in life. The duo’s dynamics came into play as they embarked on what could be described as their most contentious project as husband and wife – but also their most fulfilling.
Photos: Ramon Portelli

Architects Patricia and Steven Risiott purchased this Balzan property six years ago and moved in two years later, but they still would not consider it to be complete.

“We have been furnishing it organically as the dynamics of our family change with time,” say the architect partners, who together form A Collective studio.

Admittedly, the Maltese expression ‘l-iskarpan dejjem biz-żarbun imqatta’ explains it best, according to the owners.

“We dedicate lots of time to meticulously detailing our clients’ projects, but in this case, it was not possible to do the same. We have had to take quite a few spontaneous site decisions along the way and, admittedly, we also made a few mistakes in the process,” says Steven.

The architect duo feels a deep sense of responsibility when entrusted with designing other people’s homes, but this was not the case with their own.

Everything else comes first and they have had little energy for their own personal project, with all its designs and details drafted after working hours and on weekends.

“It was an exhausting period,” they confess.

Nevertheless, the end result is “a place to unwind and reboot, but also a space to entertain and welcome friends and family”.

It is interesting to note what their own brief to themselves was, and whether they always see eye to eye as ‘architect partners’ – in more ways than one.

In this case, maybe not, Steven says. Perhaps, it was the most contentious project they have worked on as husband and wife.

“The thought of having to experience an ill-executed detail for years was daunting to say the least, so every decision was over-scrutinised and there was a lot of going back and forth.”

That said, they worked together before they decided to venture into a romantic relationship and hit it off immediately.

“As soppy as it may sound, we really do complement each other. It is an exciting journey both on and off the job. We very rarely have different opinions and, more often than not, come to the same conclusions.

“When the other half is not convinced by something, we know deep down that the correct solution has not been explored yet. Perhaps, the only thing we do not seem to agree on is how many times to eat pasta per week.”

The selling point

The property, spread over 165 square metres, is a second-floor apartment. However, the architects who designed the block did a good job at exploiting natural light and a visual connection to the more beautiful aspects of the surrounding urban environment. This was, in fact, the selling point for its current owners.

“We had seen countless properties before this and, admittedly, an apartment was not quite on the cards. But this particular one ticked most of the boxes,” Steven says.

Looking back, it was a relatively straight-forward project compared to others they are involved in on a daily basis, and the biggest headache could be boiled down to time management.

“Sometimes, it is tempting to close an eye to imperfections in the name of expediency. But we are glad we insisted on certain snags, which, at the time, could have seemed superfluous,” they recall.

Called the Greenhouse project, that feel is immediately gleaned from the glass and plants. However, the name was not the inspiration behind the interior design; rather it was a byproduct of the way the occupants experience the space through their love for sunlight and plants.

In winter, the actual greenhouse effect is “very welcome”. When the sun is at low altitude, sunlight infiltrates well into the property, warming up the concrete floors and creating an interesting play of light and shadows.

In summer, the property is thermally comfortable because the glass is shaded by canopies and louvers for the most part.

“Naturally, the context is key,” says Steven. “Design choices fit within the space because they effortlessly follow cues that are derived from the property.

“We can say that the interior design is not only a reflection of our personalities and taste but also specific to place.”

A seamless transition between the indoor and outdoor areas was important to the owners. They installed a raised timber deck in the terraces such that the open-plan space can spill outdoors, seemingly increasing the floor area when guests are over.

The fact that the apartment was purchased on plan meant the owners could mould the interior architecture to suit their lifestyle and material preferences.

From the onset, they wanted to avoid gypsum ceilings where possible, so they insisted on an exposed concrete ceiling in most rooms.

They wanted invisible doors, so they raised all the door lintels and concealed the door frames in the walls. They wanted a monolithic floor, so they decided to install a polished grey terrazzo cast-in-situ floor with green, yellow, black and white micro chippings.

The grey ceiling and floor contrast with bespoke furniture elements in American walnut, ribbed black MDF and quartzite, while the colour scheme is mainly neutral, composed of grey, green and other natural tones to reflect the surrounding outdoor environment.

Meanwhile, a splash of colour here and there helps to provide depth to the otherwise neutral palette.

“We like to incorporate colour in smaller doses on fittings and furniture pieces, which are less likely to tire and date over time,” the architects say.

On plan, the wall layout was interesting but challenging to work with. Angled walls frame views to the outside and the one in the living room was “balanced off” with a similarly angled sofa.

The continuous curved bulkhead was introduced to tie in the angled living room walls to the rest of the open plan, to conceal structural beams and the open plan AC unit, while also concealing the curtain rails around the glazing.

Much of the furniture was designed by A Collective and the bespoke designs include the kitchen, bathroom furniture, doors and wardrobes.

But perhaps, the most particular custom-made furniture pieces include the TV unit, designed to project into the corridor, and the bedside tables manufactured from the offcuts of the wardrobe and equipped with power management pockets to conceal electrical cables.

Nevertheless, it is hard to pinpoint specific pieces that the architects identify themselves with.

“Perhaps there is a trademark approach that people who are familiar with our work would identify, but to us, it is more about how the space comes to life as we experience it,” says Steve.

“There is more to the space than what comes across in the photos; we feel it represents us best when we are sipping a coffee while looking out onto the beautiful modernist villa across the street; while listening to our favourite music as we prepare Sunday lunch; while watching sunset over the blooming jacaranda in late May.”

The architects have “absolutely no regrets”. At times, they may have wondered whether it would make sense to invest in products and furniture that were considered more expensive than normal, but “good design is a way of life” to them.

“We feel there is quality added in even the most mundane of jobs if these are performed in a beautiful space with beautiful products.”

The prize for favourite spot in their home goes to the all-black ensuite shower room. They opted for a completely black palette and a single bright spotlight directed on the rain shower to highlight the water.

“And it’s the perfect place to start and end the day.”

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