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The home of Alvin Yee and May Chow in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto has been nicknamed 'the sugar cube' by local kids. (Dave LeBlanc)
The home of Alvin Yee and May Chow in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto has been nicknamed 'the sugar cube' by local kids. (Dave LeBlanc)

A Leaside home that's sweet on Mies Add to ...

Modernism is neither cheap nor easy to build. Without interior cover-ups of baseboards and crown moulding or a thick stuccoed exterior, angles must be precise and finishes must meet each other as cleanly as possible. Mies van der Rohe wasn't just being clever when he said "God is in the details." With Modern, details reign supreme.

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Think of it as zero-tolerance architecture.

Rubbing shoulders with Leaside's charming 1930s Tudor-style homes is the last place one might expect to find a zero-tolerance Miesian box, yet on one typical, gently curving street, an example stands proud.

It's the work of husband-and-wife team Alvin Yee and May Chow. Mr. Yee, 50, who trained as an architect but works in commercial project management, and Ms. Chow, a principal at health care specialists Parkin Architects, had never designed a residence before this one. It's hard to believe given the precision and inventiveness of the design.

Unlike ordinary homes that use the kitchen (or, less often nowadays, the living room) as the central hub, here everything is organized around an asymmetrical "spine" that divides functional from non-functional spaces: "It's like two-thirds, one-third," explains Mr. Yee. "So you have bathrooms, all the plumbing, the kitchen, all the functional space is on this side, and the same for upstairs." This leaves two-thirds of the plan's width to be given over to a living room, dining room and family room on the ground floor, and to bedrooms on the second.

Visitors enter via a small foyer on the functional side of the spine, then turn to experience a "surprise" expanse of living area. Standing in this living area, it's easy to see the concept: all lined up are foyer, sculptural staircase, powder room and kitchen.

The sculptural stair strikes the visitor most. Rather than show the underside of each tread, steps are encased in exquisitely crafted rectangular boxes, which are then stacked together like "Lego pieces." Floor-to-ceiling glass screens and a large frosted window for illumination make it seem as if it's a protected art piece - it's not, but it could be.

The one bone of contention for these first-time house designers is the large powder room next to the stairs. Since they mimicked the size of the shared bathroom upstairs, which also includes a shower, they feel this room could have been made smaller to increase the size of the kitchen.

No matter, the kitchen is plenty large for this family of three. Of note here is the fine, grain-matched cabinets by Kitchener's Olympia Cabinets K-W, the OctoLam steel laminate backsplash and the floating vent hood over the cook-top island - why place a sink in the island when cooking is the more social activity? - which the couple says was a detail that cost quite a bit more: "You know when you get them for against the wall, right, you get three sides finished, and it's a thousand dollars. Well, this thing cost two thousand dollars for one more face!" explains Mr. Yee with a laugh.

Also unusual and highly detail-oriented is the basement's plumbing stack, which was routed along the ceiling instead of under the concrete slab. This was done because the street's high water table from an old stream meant digging any deeper would have resulted in constant flooding.

When the couple purchased the home in 1999, it was a simple one-storey bungalow. When mould appeared on the small, 1960s rear addition a few years later, they decided to take the leap on a major renovation/rebuild since that had always been the intention. While for eight months in 2005-2006 the couple lived in a rental space a few streets over, they'd show up every single day to project manage, since a Miesian, open plan space leaves no room for error. "People look at this and say 'Oh, it's easy to have a big wall,'" says Mr. Yee as he points to the wall that travels the length of the 1150-square-foot space, "but no, it's very difficult to have a big wall because when you compartmentalize the rooms, your wall can be crooked but no one notices."

To combat the starkness of that long white wall (they are working on getting art), floors are a rich, warm, engineered Indonesian merbau that's oiled rather than clear-coated because, again, "when you have anything shiny - whether it's paint on the wall or a floor - you see that unevenness," he says.

Similarly, dark mahogany latticework on the exterior street façade breaks up what could have been a neighbour-offending stark box. "You could do a Villa Savoye in a field somewhere and do all concrete and glass and to heck with anybody else," jokes Mr. Yee, "but this is a home for someone to live in."

In the backyard beyond the wall of windows, a curvaceous opal sculpture by Collingwood's Doug Butler stands counterpoint to geometric landscaping. To disguise the roof-slope needed for drainage, two parapets crown either end of the structure.

Standing no taller than its neighbours, the bold geometric home does stand out for the juxtaposing of discipline and woodsy-warmth. In fact, some of the neighbourhood kids have affectionately dubbed the home "the sugar cube."

Well, it certainly is sweet on Mies.

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of the picture collection accompanying this story contained a photo cutline that incorrectly priced the cost of the kitchen vent hood. This online version has been corrected."

 

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