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Great Spaces: a subterranean house in Wychwood Park that got the whole neighbourhood talking

Two decades ago, Ian MacDonald and Diane ­MacDiarmid fell in love with a sloping lot in Wychwood Park. They figured it would be easy enough to expand the 1950s bungalow perched on it—­MacDonald is an architect, after all. That was before they encountered the ­Wychwood Park ­Heritage Advisory Committee. The ­couple’s new neighbours were convinced the structure would block views, cause stress to the trees and clash with the Arts and Crafts–­dominated enclave. After months of ­tension, ­MacDonald came up with an unorthodox solution: dig into the hill so that the main floor of the old bungalow would become the top floor of the new house. Although the new living space sits eight feet below grade, the lot’s slope allowed for floor-to-ceiling windows, which make the house feel bigger than its 2,600 square feet and not at all like a basement. The windows also frame ­exterior views: a 450-year-old oak tree outside the dining room and the pond where their two boys, both studying engineering at ­Dalhousie, still play shinny in the winter. It took the neighbours a while to warm to ­MacDonald and his modernist aesthetic, but they eventually came around on both fronts—he’s been elected chair of the Heritage Advisory ­Committee for the last 12 years straight.