It’s got a brick façade. It has a sloped roof. And it has space for five families – in comfortable spaces – instead of two narrow houses. This is what the future of Toronto’s house neighbourhoods could look like.
This vision comes from Batay-Csorba Architects, a young and talented Toronto firm. Recently, I wrote about how planning regulations in Toronto are limiting new housing in the city. BCA responded to my request to come up with an architectural solution.
The most efficient way to add more housing would be with low-rise apartment buildings, what’s often called the “missing middle.” But that would be opposed by city planners and, almost certainly, neighbours and their city councillors. So I asked BCA to try something that might be more palatable. We chose at random a site near Bloor and Christie Streets that’s currently occupied by two semi-detached houses. The challenge: to add more good-quality housing units here, while roughly maintaining the visual rhythm and scale of the street.
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“We began by wanting to challenge the spatial organization that you find in these neighbourhoods,” said Andrew Batay-Csorba, who runs the firm with his partner and wife, Jodi. “The basic structure of this part of Toronto is in these long and narrow lots. But what happens if the units are back-to-back, instead of side-to-side?”
As it turns out, you get some very comfortable housing. The architects took the two lots and filled their width with three cubes: single-family townhouses of about 2,500 square feet, with their entrances from the front, the side and the back of the site. The rendering studio Norm Li brought the idea beautifully to life.
Each of these three units has a screened-in courtyard that shelters the entrance, creating a visual buffer between the house and what’s beyond. The porch on Victorian houses, which in many cases don’t get much use, is transformed into a space that’s square, half-enclosed and somewhat less open. “Our goal,” Mr. Batay-Csorba said, “is to create a connection to the outdoors, while also preserving the privacy that people want.”
These outdoor courtyards are important to the scheme. “They combine the porch and the front yard,” Mr. Batay-Csorba said, “to produce a space you can use year-round.”
A retractable awning, an outdoor fireplace, and radiant heating in the floor would make the courtyards comfortable for much of the year. “This is a 600-square-foot extension of the house, and space that is actually usable and comfortable,” Jodi Batay-Csorba said.
What’s lost is some of the limited front-yard space, which on streets like this is little used; and much of the backyard. That is less of a problem than it might seem. When you have a duplex or triplex in this neighbourhood, its backyard often belongs to nobody in particular. The BCA design cleverly rearranges this outdoor space to make it into something comfortable. And the removal of two garages creates some open space.
The Batay-Csorbas, who have a strong interest in exploring multifamily housing in the city, have drawn the front and back houses as potential duplexes. Each of the end houses – at front and back – also opens up to a below-ground space with a large window and an entry door to the basement. Depending on how the stairs and doors are configured, this can be a rental apartment “or provide more flexibility for a multi-generational family,” Ms. Batay-Csorba said, “with an option to divide or combine it over time.”
The houses themselves are basically square and they have comfortable room sizes and good floor plans. It’s an obvious contrast to the the long-and-skinny floors of a Victorian or Edwardian Toronto house, with a smaller proportion of wasted space and better light.
The BCA proposal challenges a hypocrisy in Toronto planning, which defends the “prevailing character” of areas such as this. In short, as long as a new building is a house for one family, it usually ends up getting approved, no matter how big it is or what it looks like. If it has two, three, or four units, people tend to complain much more loudly – and in most of the postwar city, three or more units is totally forbidden. All that has to change.
So how does their proposal fit? This site is now occupied by a pair of semi-detached homes built around 1910. Combining the two lots into a five-plex would be difficult if not impossible, given the restrictions of the current city Official Plan. But it would appear to fit in just fine. Its density – the amount of floor space divided by the size of the lot – would be higher than the zoning allows, but the zoning is almost meaningless. Almost every house on the block already breaks that rule, and new single-family houses being built nearby are comparable, or larger, than the BCA building.
In simple terms, that means the building won’t be much bulkier – and it will be no taller – than what is around it; its size is entirely in keeping with the sort of single-family houses that are being added here today. It’s just different. But it creates more, and better quality, homes.
Finally, the most contentious question about any new building: What does it look like from the street? The BCA complex fits in well. The front façade and the screens around the courtyard are all made of some nubbly red brick, with some complex and beautiful details. It doesn’t look exactly like its neighbours, but then, the neighbours don’t look alike. There are at least four distinct architectural styles on the block already. Most of prewar Toronto is an architectural mishmash. This new dwelling wouldn’t stick out any more than they do.
“People in these neighbourhoods are very interested in the idea of context,” Mr. Batay-Csorba said. “But we want to challenge what it means to be contextual, to think about how people actually live now. And the architecture of these houses is ripe for reinterpretation.”