There is no better business card for an architect than a personal home. Without client demands, it’s a test lab for the best or most radical ideas. It’s late night conversations and scrap paper pencil sketches made real from bricks and mortar. Later, it’s where the architect brings a prospective client to say, “See, it’s possible.”
But what if a lack of funds makes the business card impossible to build?
In architect Huy Truong’s case, he found a willing investor.
Six years ago, Mr. Truong and his wife, Kharyn Chau, a structural engineer, purchased a small, down-on-its-luck 1920s cottage in Mississauga’s Lorne Park neighbourhood; Mr. Truong’s father was living in a west end Toronto semi that was starting to feel a little too large to keep up.
Fast forward a few years and the couple had come to the conclusion that an addition wouldn’t help their crumbling cottage perform any better for their growing family – they have an eight-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl – so they wondered: What if his dad sold his house and they combined their resources to build something new?
A “three-generation home” would solve many problems, financial and otherwise. But with a narrow, heavily treed corner lot that lacked privacy, “you can’t do anything here” was a popular opinion, remembers Mr. Truong, 43, who then adds: “Being an architect, I saw the potential.”
To accommodate an aging parent (Mr. Truong’s father turns 70 this year), an active family of four and two home offices wouldn’t be easy. To complicate matters, the senior Mr. Truong stipulated that he needed a swimming pool – “He does laps every day before work,” his son says with a smile – if he was going to sacrifice his own home and pool for the new dwelling on his son’s lot.
To retain trees, gain sufficient space and create a pool area, a courtyard design was the agreed-upon solution. Mr. Truong’s first sketch was of the classic C shape, but Ms. Chau rejected it because it would overwhelm the small lot. Next, an L shape was considered, with the long portion extending deep into the lot. This was finessed until the as-built design splits the L into two boxes, one long and one short, which slide past one another so the short box projects toward the street and the long box acts as a privacy screen for the pool.
Generous floor-to-ceiling windows on the long box’s living, dining and kitchen areas run parallel to the pool so the couple can keep an eye on the kids or “be preparing food and you can see your garden.” The public face of the long box has fewer windows on the main floor; one notable exception is the horizontal slit over the sink. In the short box, which contains the street-facing garage, the senior Mr. Truong enjoys resort hotel-like luxury with a simple glass door to access the pool. “We actually made his bedroom on the ground floor so he doesn’t have to go up and down the stairs,” his proud son says.
Sitting in the IKEA kitchen – which the couple assembled themselves to save money – if one tires of viewing the pool or its little fountain, a swivel of the head to the northeast rewards the eyes with textured bark, as some of the trees are wonderfully close to the windows. “Why we bought this land was because of all the trees,” Mr. Truong says, “but in our old house we couldn’t see them!”
And for those times that the mixing of three generations gets to be a little much, the couple can escape to a balcony off the master bedroom. Originally, the room was to have been flush with the senior Mr. Truong’s suite, but pushing it back provided both a refuge and a longer day by the water: “Just by cutting this we gained another two hours of sunlight.”
It’s a carefully considered plan, and it reinforces two things Mr. Truong feels strongly about. Firstly, while a conventional builder’s house may work for a conventional lot, a challenging lot or program (or both) requires the talents of an architect (case in point: a few contractors Mr. Truong interviewed decided that a corner lot meant there could never be a backyard; when Zden-Bomar contracting agreed with him that there could, it was hired). And secondly, spend money on a good design and a well-insulated shell even if it breaks the bank; later, when budgets allow, quality finishes, expensive flooring and marble countertops – the bling, in other words – can be added. This is a philosophy Mr. Truong tries to push on clients whenever possible. “A lot of people come to me with a magazine and say ‘I want this bathroom’ but that bathroom costs more than the house,” he laughs.
While Mr. Truong hopes his home, as business card, will inspire others to work with him – or any architect – it has already been responsible for a major change in his own life: After decades of working for other people, he recently started his own firm, Elemental Architects.
“If you would have asked me about four years ago if we could build our own home, I’d have said probably not.”