When a London-based investment manager decided to move back to Canada with his family, he used a quick trip to Toronto to buy an older house on a leafy lot in Moore Park.
“I didn’t look too hard, as I was rarely in town long enough to make a proper search,” recalls Rasheed (who asked that his last name not be used). “I stopped at the first thing that was close to what we thought we would want.”
Looking back, Rasheed calls that impulsive purchase a “schoolboy error.” But the misstep had a remarkable outcome: It led to the creation of a three-storey house by architect Drew Mandel, who was recently handed a 2014 design excellence award from the Ontario Association of Architects for the project. Rasheed, his wife Christine, and their four-year-old son are preparing to move into the house on Clifton Road in a few weeks.
Standing in front of the newly-completed residence, Mr. Mandel points to the common elements it shares with surrounding houses in the established neighbourhood. “It’s about, in some way, respectfully fitting in. There’s a language of existing homes. We picked up on it.”
The form, peaked roof and setback from the street are all in keeping with neighbouring buildings, as are the structure’s projections and indentations. “We just started taking slices out of it – pushing and pulling the mass. It just started to help us develop our language,” he says of the streetscape.
Approaching the front door, a visitor rises on rectangular stone blocks to a floating steel surround. “The entrance way was designed to make the arrival feel special,” Mr. Mandel says. “It’s also nice to be sheltered when you’re fishing for your keys.”
Inside, the main floor is a light-filled, interconnected space. A freestanding walnut coat closet delineates the foyer without blocking light and air. “We don’t want it to feel like a corridor. There’s a sense of separation but light is spilling over the top.”
A dining area at the front of the house has a large window looking out on the street. The kitchen is at the centre of the house, with a large island of walnut and white Corian and a lounge area next to it. The long dining table at the same height as the island visually extends the kitchen, Mr. Mandel points out.
“They wanted that feeling of a huge family gallery, so the kitchen bleeds into the dining room and it all bleeds into the living room and mud room,” the architect says. “It’s all one big, open space. The cook is not isolated. You can be cooking in the kitchen while you’re entertaining.”
At the rear, large floor-to-ceiling windows open to the garden from the living area. “You get nice breezes,” as the windows and doors slide away, he says. “It can be very open.”
The lower level is designed to add another level of living space that doesn’t feel like a basement.
By digging away from the exterior of the house and cladding the outer walls in stone, the architect created a sort of outdoor courtyard. Floor-to-ceiling doors and windows slide back to create an indoor-outdoor room.
Looking back, Rasheed hadn’t been planning to undertake a large project on returning to the city where he grew up, but he couldn’t find the right house in traditional Toronto neighbourhoods, he explains in an e-mail. “There are few modern homes in this city – at least in places where I wanted to live.”
A renovation of the existing house was going to be expensive so Rasheed figured that starting over made financial sense.
He hired Mr. Mandel after seeing some of the Toronto-based architect’s projects, including the award-winning Cedarvale Ravine House completed in 2011.
The schoolboy mistake Rasheed referred to was uncovered when he found the lot is subject to flooding at the rear. And when the team at Drew Mandel Architects started designing a house based on the couple’s wish list, the dwelling was going to stretch the limits of the size allowed for the lot.
Further problems came when the city banned flat roofs for houses with three levels. (There were several concerns. Toronto’s existing stock of homes are overwhelmingly two storey/pitched roof and it was thought that a flat-topped three-storey home would destroy the uniform look of neighbourhoods. Three-storey homes also create “overlook” issues with the neighbours’ homes and create larger shadows on neigbouring buildings.)
“We were caught in that perfect storm of zoning where they outlawed three-storey flat-roof structures right at that time.”
The team struggled with the roof line in his office, Mr. Mandel says, because their work has been so avowedly Modernist. “It’s not as familiar territory.”
In the end, they decided to embrace it – partly to assuage the neighbours who were fearful that a modern dwelling would change the street’s character.
On the second floor, rooms have more separation. Otherwise, “you can end up in a sea of space,” Mr. Mandel says. The plan allows lots of flexibility in the future. A room currently used as a study could be a TV room or another bedroom, for example.
The first and second floors are physically and visually connected by an open space. “You get this deep connection between three floors but also this healthy separation for family living.”
Pointing to a light fixture called Super Nova high above the main floor, Mr. Mandel says it resembles the moon when it glows late at night.
Common finishes in white, walnut and limestone are carried through the house, the architect adds. The bedrooms are nice, simple, light-filled spaces.
The third floor provides a master retreat under the peaked roof. Here the sleeping area opens to a large deck at treetop height. “There’s a real canopy of green trees across the back,” Mr. Mandel says, pointing to the back of the garden. The area also looks out on a green roof planted on top of the garage.
One of the nicest aspects of the third floor is being able to enjoy the peaked roof, he says. “You see the shapes all the way through.”
Rasheed says the master retreat is also a favourite area of the house. “The view from the bedroom deck is particularly stunning.”
In certain places in the house, he adds, you can see very little but the trees, the sky, the wood soffit, the window frames and an edge of the stark white interior. “All of those different materials, colours and shapes seem to work together.”
Bill Birdsell, president of the Ontario Association of Architects, says the jury that selected the house for a 2014 design excellence award praised the house for its clarity. It is contemporary yet connected to cultural traditions and also connected to the outdoors.
“It’s exactly what the jury like to see,” says Mr. Birdsell. “It’s a beautiful house. It has clarity of built form that actually explains our modern world to us.”
Mr. Birdsell says that the house does not get trapped in a preservation ethos.
“Emulation is so shallow. It’s fake. It’s a one-trick pony,” he says. By contrast, the Clifton Road house stands on its own while incorporating cultural clues such as the simple shapes, masonry and peaked roof often seen in Ontario buildings.
The interior, Mr. Birdsell says, is well-appointed, with a great scale and a wonderful link to the backyard. “Day-to-day life wouldn’t diminish the house – it would add. It’s the type of house that you can just picture building memories in.”
He also believes that any lingering misgivings among the neighbours are likely to vanish.
Ultimately, it’s the type of building that will get right into the consciousness of the community, he adds. “People in the neighbourhood start to take possession of the house. It gets on the cocktail circuit. People say: ‘You’ve got to see this house.’”