When they laid out the heart of Toronto’s East York neighbourhood during the interwar years of the previous century, developers wooed prospective homeowners with inexpensive bungalows set on narrow, long lots. This patterning of the urban grid had consequences for the way the city looks and works.
One is the attractively distinctive East York streetscape. It’s typically a tight, low-rise rhythm of very modest house-fronts that hails from the early days of Hogtown’s suburbanization and stands as a reminder of the city’s working-class roots.
Another result is a local real estate market in which prices lagged behind other parts of Toronto. It’s not hard to figure out the reasons. The original housing stock, which was cheap to begin with, has now grown elderly, and most of the one-storey homes are too small for contemporary people. In many cases, a teardown makes sense. But we come back to the very skinny configuration of the properties. Can a new, well-lit and ample detached house be shoe-horned into a site that is deep, but just around 6.1 metres wide?
Last week, I saw an effective answer to this question on a typical East York street.
The two-level, 1,600-square-foot residence I visited started out as a speculative development by Toronto architects Titka Safarzadeh and Saied Mahboubi. But as often happens when interesting modern homes go up in rapidly gentrifying districts, the building was sold while still under construction.
Because Linear House (as the project is called) was not designed for a specific client, however, it lends itself to a reading as a kind of case study about housing on tight lots. It’s an experiment, that is, in building compactly and well in a part of the city where urban geography makes doing so a challenge. And it’s an experiment that works.
An important part of this challenge involves light – scooping up enough of it, distributing it evenly throughout the interior, making sure the centre of the house is properly illuminated. Ms. Safarzadeh and Mr. Mahboubi have dealt with the problem of brightening the house’s middle portion by turning the central stair into a glass-framed light well topped by a large skylight.
This tower of glass, with the stairwell suspended in it, is the primary architectural focus of the building. It’s the first thing the visitor sees upon stepping into the structure through the main entrance, which has been pulled smartly around to the side to emphasize the middle-oriented character of the design. In addition, wide horizontal openings and a two-storey vertical window on the stucco and dark brick front façade also serve to banish darkness from the interior of this building.
Along with getting enough light inside, ensuring spatial breadth is another concern for anyone who crafts a narrow detached home. Ms. Safarzadeh and Mr. Mahboubi have addressed both issues in engaging ways, but their treatment of spatial flow is especially noteworthy.
Take the living room, for example. Starting at the large streetside windows, strong lines lead the eye smoothly back to the central glass-enclosed stairwell, as well as upward, through the double-height opening, to the skylight overhead. This area of the house is only about 4.3 metres wide, but the sense of it is expansive because nothing blocks the long views that its walls create.
At the same time, the interior retains a sculpted look, and does not dissolve into so much undifferentiated volume. The living-room seating ensemble, for instance, is gathered into a clearly defined territory that is crisply separated from the kitchen and dining area by a short flight of steps. The food-preparation island in the kitchen establishes a long sightline between a vertical opening and the tall windows leading out to the deck and the large back garden beyond, but the kitchen/dining area still has about it a feel that is distinctly more intimate than the light-filled, dramatic living room.
Thus, Ms. Safarzadeh and Mr. Mahboubi have maintained certain desirable continuities with yesteryear’s standard Toronto detached house – by making spaces that express their functions, and don’t puddle out into patches of noplace or anyplace, for example – while instilling their project with flair that is very contemporary.
The narrow lots of East York can surely tax the architectural imagination. But occasionally the stress prompts residential designers to come up with exciting and agreeable solutions to the problem. Linear House is one of them.