Like brain surgery, the job of planning, designing and building a home of one’s own, even (or especially) a little one, is always complicated and sometimes dauntingly difficult. Which is the reason many people gladly drop the whole business into the laps of architects, who (if they really know their stuff) bring to the table all the necessary practical know-how and art. For most of us, most of the time, in fact, hiring an architect to oversee a housing project from start to finish is the decision most likely to produce the result we want, which is the perfect house.
Every so often, however, I meet an ambitious, energetic non-architect, a member of the sizeable tribe of born do-it-yourselfers, who has taken on all or most of a home’s creation. And I do mean everything, from laying out the scheme for the interior and exterior to steering the proposal through the city’s approvals process, from conception to move-in day.
The lady I am calling Ms. K, whose 2,800-square-foot Toronto house I visited last week, is a person of this DIY sort. From the standpoint of architectural values, the interior she fashioned for herself, Mr. K and their two teenaged daughters in the deep downtown Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood is not perfect, as I will explain shortly. But how she did it could serve as an excellent object-lesson for any self-starter inclined to take on a ground-up home-building project.
Before beginning to design a house, for example, you need the extensive, mindful experience of various architectural conditions. This means something more than going to Europe and taking snapshots of buildings you like. It means hands-on dealings with spaces and places, such as those Ms. K has acquired through her practices as a self-taught interior designer and (perhaps more important) an abstractionist painter.
You need to be well-organized, and you must be savvy about people: the planning and zoning bureaucrats at city hall, carpenters and bricklayers, those pesky people who live next door. Ms. K’s professional training as a lawyer served her well when, for instance, she had to formally present an argument for allowing her scheme to depart, in small ways, from Toronto’s official plan. (She didn’t get to build out the rear of the house as far as she wanted, though she won on other points.)
You also must know what you don’t know. The design, inside and out, was her own handiwork. She made the final decisions on all creative questions. But when out of her depth, Ms. K wisely turned to expert guns for hire: an architect-friend (especially for the preparation of construction drawings), an architectural technologist, a structural engineer. With such help, flair for getting things done, a knack for handling people and situations, and an estimated $1.3-million, Ms. K realized her dream: a modern, flat-topped, three-storey, four-bedroom house, tailored exactly to her plans and located in what, pre-gentrification, was a dense blue-collar residential zone close to the heart of the inner city.
But while the effort expended on this project was surely outstanding, and the goal was admirable, the outcome, in my view, is less so.
Take, for example, the downstairs area, where the house opens to the street, and where the family cooks, eats and socializes. Coming through the main entrance, I found myself in a close, luxuriously wood-panelled compartment too sharply disjunct from both the city outside and the interior beyond – a too-small keyhole between large territories, that is, instead of a generous transition from one to the other.
Inside, one comes into a large, bright, double-height place that has a stove, fridge, an enormous Caesarstone island and cupboards in it, but it isn’t a kitchen. In the same place is a lovely custom-built dining table with a sculpted cast-iron base, but where it stands is no dining room, or even a modernistically ambiguous “dining area.” Ms. K said she wanted the house to be open-plan, but this space appears to have no plan of any kind, no articulation of function.
By way of contrast, Ms. K has super-defined the living room by putting it on a mezzanine raised high over the undifferentiated cooking-eating area. Climbing the steps to the living room (or family room), one senses a sudden change in atmosphere from postmodern no-plan to a architectural specificity that is almost Victorian. The switch doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I would like to appreciate this house more than I do, since Ms. K’s enthusiasm for her project is infectious and sincere. But the building proves, to my mind, that the world does need architects, after all, not merely when technical expertise is required, but from the very first moment the client is struck by the idea of building a house, right to the very end.