Julie Dyck knows how to create beauty on a small scale – as a jeweller, she's used to working in millimetres.
So when she spotted an underused lot near her home on Queen Street East, she saw potential though it was just 25 feet square.
Then she pointed it out to an old friend, the architect Drew Hauser, during some summer evenings on the patio. “We'd hang out and have a few glasses of wine, and out back of her place, there was this shed – literally – that was falling down,” Mr. Hauser recalls.
He got curious, and he learned there was lots of potential in this little lot.
“I said, ‘Hey, you could build a house there.'”
With that discovery (plus several years of stop-and-start construction), Toronto's tradition of innovative infill houses got an unusual addition: a five-storey tower of purple brick that's sprung up like a rare tree. Now home to Ms. Dyck and her husband Mike Humphries, plus their two home offices, it's proof of how much can be done with the most homely chunks of the city.
Ms. Dyck and Mr. Humphries clearly have a pioneer spirit. Their previous home was itself a brave choice; in 1998 they bought a 12-foot-wide storefront with an upstairs apartment, performing a major reno while listening to the Queen streetcar rumble by out front. Corktown, which survived the urban renewal of the sixties and seventies as a solid working-class community, wasn't yet on the radar of condo developers. But the couple settled in, and Ms. Dyck was soon eager to find a new project.
She found it with the lot next door on tiny Trefann Street. At $50,000, and zoned for generous development, it demanded only a modest investment. And she had an architect when Mr. Hauser took the job with his colleagues at the firm Stanford Downey Architect. SDA are best known for the sliver-thin condo-hotel building at 1 King West, and Mr. Humphries sees a continuity there: “This place makes sense when you look at their other projects,” he says, speaking of SDA. “They do towers, and they understand how to work within a small footprint. Really, this is just a smaller tower.”
After Ms. Dyck and Mr. Humphries gave Mr. Hauser a detailed list of what they wanted – two workspaces, two bedrooms, kitchen and a living area – he came back with a scheme that distributed these purposes across four floors. Mr. Humphries and Ms. Dyck weren't fazed by the unusual layout. Ms. Dyck explains: “Our old house” – this is their word for the Queen Street building – “was only 12 feet wide, so this wasn't a stretch of the imagination.”
As it turns out, the new house splits the difference between fanciful and down-to-earth. It feels like a fortified tower in form, and yet opens up dramatically as it moves up from the street: At one corner, the purple brick gives way to a glassed-in stairwell that runs from the second to the fourth floor.
In its details it largely employs a set of materials familiar from other neo-modernist Toronto buildings: purple-grey brick, a gleaming hardwood door, polished concrete floors. But it also shows off its structural steel trusses, a robust and expensive device you won't find in many houses.
The steel is here because the building is zoned for commercial and residential uses; it has to meet the higher standards for fire safety required of commercial buildings. That's one of many peculiar things about the house, which stymied the first builder to work on the project. After a few months of stalled construction, Ms. Dyck took over as the general contractor. She had no previous building experience, except for their reno on Queen. “That was the practice house,” Ms. Dyck says with a smile.
Most people who have completed renovations speak of the process with weariness, but Ms. Dyck says – convincingly – that she loved building. “If you know good people, they know good people, and that makes things go much easier,” she says offhandedly. She also sees clear connections with her day job, which involves the careful manipulation of materials. “Jewellery is all about details, and this is just details on top of details.”
And as Mr. Hauser explains, her hands-on presence radically expanded the possibilities of the project. “All of a sudden you weren't relying on the palette or the skills of a single contractor,” says Mr. Hauser, who completed the house after moving to join Hamilton's McCallum Sather Architect.
“We could just find specific trades to do particular things. And we were able to be flexible when Julie found a deal.” One such deal connects the house to yet another tower: First Canadian Place, which has been losing its marble since 2009. Julie sought out the contractors who are removing the bianco Carrera slabs from its facades, and arranged to buy a quantity of it. It was milled and installed by mason Walter Gibson, who worked on the marble when First Canadian Place was being built in the 1960s; this time he used it to cloak the bathroom walls and the kitchen island. The stone is “muted in colour and line, and it came in massive two-by-four-foot chunks,” Ms. Dyck says. “It is gorgeous.”
It is, and it's also got a rich history, something that Ms. Dyck and Mr. Humphries clearly appreciate. Their house, despite its radically contemporary appearance, fits in surprisingly well to the little 19th-century street where it sits. And, Ms. Dyck and Mr. Humphries say, to the community as well. That's true in personal terms: The year-long construction, finished this spring, was smoothed by the help of some neighbours. “Sylvia, two doors up, brought us water all summer,” Ms. Dyck recalls. “And we were playing musical parking all summer. Nobody complained.”
But it's also true architecturally. Despite the building's new, unusually tinted brick, its scale and orientation are compatible with nearby row houses – and the grand St. Paul's Basilica across Queen. Just mount the stairs to the rooftop deck, paved with Indiana limestone and ipe, and you can grasp this instantly. “The tower on the church is basically a square, too,” says Mr. Humphries with a slight smile. Up here, the narrow side street feels distant and yet close, and the downtown skyline shimmers on the horizon like a row of jewels.