While one would never want their home described as an architectural mullet – that low-class, short/long haircut described as “business in the front, party in the back” – this one in particular does like to have it both ways.
Facing Farnham Avenue, it’s all business, with an understated heritage brick façade; at the rear, however, it’s a festival of glass, decks, dinner-parties and greenery.
So what might be a better name for this two-faced bit of bricks-and-mortar fun?
“Janus-house,” perhaps, after the Roman god who looks both forward and back?
That could work, since visitors to Jacqui Elliot’s and Bob Peake’s home do traverse a full 115 years as they walk from front to back door.
Or perhaps it’s better to keep architect Tania Bortolotto’s “Urban Ravine House” moniker, since it gets away from silly haircuts and old gods and goes right to the point: “I guess it’s very typical of many of the older houses that all the focus is towards the street, it’s very urban that way,” she says.
“And then the back of the houses are very banal, very tiny windows, and yet here they have this incredible ravine.”
So, logically, she continues, it made sense to “bring the green in, bring the sky in, bring the light in.”
“We knew we needed something bright, because we knew we’d be spending more time at home,” says Ms. Elliot, who describes herself and her homebuilder husband as “quasi-retired.”
And since the ravine wasn’t technically a ravine (not as far as the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority is concerned), Mr. Peake and his crew could execute Ms. Bortolotto’s design without fear of despoiling the sloping, treed lot.
Even better, the slope allowed for a ‘gain’ of two extra storeys: to a dog-walker on Farnham, the home reads as a two-and-a-half storey, but, to a backyard guest, the newly dug-down basement isn’t a basement at all, but level one of four.
In fact, plunk that dog-walker in the backyard, and she’d think she’d been transported to a different neighbourhood.
This duality “very much reflects our personality,” says Ms. Elliot.
Personalities played a big role when choosing their architect. As manager of big trade shows such as Construct Canada,
Infrastructure and PM Expo, Ms. Elliot knew many industry people, including Canadian Architect magazine editor-extraordinaire Ian Chodikoff, who gladly offered recommendations.
Then, she sent Mr. Peake to interview the candidates: “And Bob said, ‘Oh, I think I know which one you’re going to like,’ ” she laughs.
“– Well, the difference was Tania listened,” interjects Mr. Peake in his rich baritone.
And what Ms. Bortolotto heard was a desire not only for light, but for openness and barrier-free living as well – a challenge for a home that’s 15-feet across. Regardless, she came through with a design that allows rooms to connect to one another via huge doors that swing aside and lock away (such as those in the superb master bedroom), avoids trip-ups by ensuring all flooring types are flush, promotes lightheadedness by peeling the second floor away from the curtain wall and tucking it back, as a balcony, to allow for plenty of air over the main-floor kitchen and family room, and, finally, adds an elevator to the mix. While the elevator was installed for Ms. Elliot’s elderly father (who has since passed away) the couple says it’ll be handy should they decide to “age in place.”
And what a place! Besides that breathtaking wall of glass, the sculptural, riser-free staircase is yet another effective tool for light penetration (and passive solar heating); a curvy tub nestles under the arch of the master bath dormer window; the kitchen encourages conversation around a wide island; and bare feet are warmed by radiant heating on all four floors, whether basement epoxy, master bath travertine or hardwood.
There are little moments, too: the steel-and-glass south face is balanced by natural wood balconies made from old joists recovered during demolition and, conversely, the bricky north face dons a steel-and-glass canopy over the front door – a hint of what’s to come – that’s punctuated by the re-plated, original doorknob.
“I was really impressed with Bob’s high quality construction,” offers Ms. Bortolotto. “As an architect, you get worried when the owner is the contractor because you think they’re not going to look at the plans, they’re just going to roll them up and throw them in a garbage … and then you worry about the quality.”
The quality is even more impressive when you consider the hemmed in site meant work was done the old-fashioned way, from “hand-bombing” steel beams up construction stairs and rigging a chain-hoist to carry components needed to build the interior staircase, says Mr. Peake, to digging the basement down using spades, pickaxes and wheelbarrows.
“Once in a lifetime is enough,” he laughs.
Hopefully, projects such as this will happen more than once in this neighbourhood, since on Farnham, Balmoral and Woodlawn decades of renovation-happy homeowners have meant the loss of many original façades.
Because heritage is always good business, and one heck of a party, too.
“We get lots of comments about it,” enthuses Ms. Elliot.
“And people love it,” finishes Mr. Peake.