On a quiet street in Toronto's Annex, just blocks from where urban activist Jane Jacobs once lived, is a neatly renovated semi-detached Victorian house. Or that's how it seems from outside. Venture into this home and you move from Victoriana into ultra-modern in one crisp, oak-lined shimmy.
Carving the main living space in two is a dramatic staircase, its exquisitely-finished, timber-clad form a sculptural statement that sets the tone for the interior. The long dining table – a signature piece of architect Donald Chong – is complimented by wall panelling, a breakfast bar and kitchen, all hewn from American oak. The millwork is beautiful, the design is neat and precise, the scent of wood is calming and invigorating at the same time. First impressions indicate that the house will be a design delight, but Mr. Chong has more expansive ideas and he's already moved on.
A busy, always-thinking, always-talking kind of guy, he has bigger ideas than most and this house is a logical progression in one of them.
"We have created a forever home," he says. "We've taken a dilapidated boarding house, defragmented it and turned it into a home that will grow with its family, enabling them to live within the city not just for now but for their entire lives."
A "forever home" sounds kind of fairytale, doesn't it? But as Mr. Chong – one third of the firm Williamson Chong – describes the thought processes that informed the design, the quirky moniker becomes more mantra than make-believe.
The client, a couple with two small children, really wanted to stay within the city but a tight budget and ever-escalating house prices made that difficult. Mr. Chong's solution was a house that could accommodate them and generate revenue in the short term while expanding with the family in the future.
As such, cavernous storage space is hidden behind the oak-panelled wall of the dining area, so freeing up the basement to be turned into a separate rentable apartment. Upstairs, the uppermost floor of the main home has space to accommodate a live-in lodger. Both help pay the mortgage while the family is young. However, as they grow the children will want more space. Out goes the upstairs lodger and presto, separate bedrooms for the kids.
Downstairs, the basement apartment would be the perfect place for grandma to move into, eventually. And, when the time comes, that is what the family intends to do. Here, Mr. Chong's clever design of the glazed screen on the main floor enables it to be easily adapted to create a new internal entrance to the basement, giving grandma access to the main living area and a bolthole to escape down when the kids get too boisterous.
The idea to future-proof the house is so simple, and yet it is difficult to think of another example. It is this kind of intelligent design that is getting Williamson Chong noticed – their Prix de Rome win and Blantyre Avenue home have been recently featured in this paper – and Mr. Chong has a lot to do with that.
Since his "Small fridges make good cities" exhibition stand in 2007, and award-winning Galley House in 2010, the architect has strived to re-engage people with their city, to emulate the ideals of Jane Jacobs and to protect and promote urban neighbourhoods.
"We have to address city living on all levels," he says. "While intelligent master planning is part of the solution and condominiums will always be part of the cityscape, we have to consider the middle grain, the projects that utilize the infill lots, the renovation schemes and less apparent urban solutions."
These solutions are what Mr. Chong believes will suit the often-overlooked masses who want to live an urban life but who get slowly pushed to the suburbs. This demographic is the key to keeping cities alive and thriving and he sees the reinvigoration of homes such as this one as the answer to solving the evolving lifestyle conditions that families go through.
"The defragmentation of this house, from rental units back into a single home, could be seen as a metaphor for how we should be addressing neighbourhoods within our city," explains Mr. Chong. "Intelligent architecture and urban design will encourage families to stay within the city, to put down roots. With this comes the regeneration of neighbourhoods and an evermore healthy urban condition."
We discuss these issues while wandering the house: Up the grand stairway to a playroom that adjoins the master bedroom via a short bridge – an intimate touch that reveals the parents' desire to share their time with their children. Down a hallway featuring Victorian design remnants – a connection to the home's lineage – to a very modern oak-lined vestibule with a hidden door to access the washer/dryer, and on into the clean lines of the bathroom, clad in ceramic tiles, oak surrounds and including a luxurious standalone bath.
As Mr. Chong explains the reasoning behind the design of his latest project, from the screen hiding a future doorway to the basement and voluminous storage closets, or the way in which the kitchen morphs through patio doors into an outdoor barbecue area, he manages to convince me that these micro adaptations can affect the way a city works on the macro scale.
Could this Victorian home on a quiet street in the Annex be the start of an urban revolution? Maybe not, but if its designer is allowed to truly spread his architectural wings, Donald Chong just might be.