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A very open house: Glass cube in the Beach strives for transparency Add to ...

The traditional houses facing Lake Ontario in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood have tended to shelter their residents beneath porches and behind shutters.

z axis design has taken the determinedly opposite approach in building a glass cube that reaches out to the lake.

The firm's husband-and-wife principals, Esther Cheong and Paul Fantauzzi, believe that many home buyers today crave modern design and a connection with the outdoors.

"We prefer modern," says Ms. Cheong, adding that the couple assumed others do as well. "We thought it was a niche in the market that we could fill."

They began their search for a site more than a year ago. They purchased the house at 2 Alfresco Lawn last fall and tore most of it down. They rejigged the footprint a bit and virtually started anew.

The property, which sits across from the boardwalk, beach and a stretch of Kew Gardens, seemed like the perfect setting for bold architecture that takes full advantage of the view, says Mr. Fantauzzi.

"You look for those opportunities that those traditional houses are preventing," he says.

The movement toward contemporary design is gradually changing the city's housing stock, adds real estate agent Paul Johnston of Right at Home Realty. He has listed the house for sale with an asking price of $1.995-million.

To create a nearly transparent house, the designers installed wall-to-wall windows across the front and back. The main floor combination of living room, dining room and kitchen has an open plan. Even the staircase to the second floor was built with treads but no risers so that it doesn't block the view.

The openness allows light to flood every part of the house.

"Half the modernism is the quality of the light," says Mr. Fantauzzi.

The kitchen has no upper cabinets to make the space feel heavy or enclosed. A pop-up fan rises from the island cooktop when needed so that there is no reason to have an eye-blocking exhaust hood.

The large window meets an expanse of counter stretched across the rear wall.

"The kitchen's very bright because of it," says Ms. Cheong of the design. "The light just falls on the work surface."

Upstairs, two bedrooms of equal size face the rear. There's no immediate neighbour behind the house so the view takes in the trees and backyard gardens of houses on perpendicular streets.

At the front of the house, the large master bedroom has 10-foot high ceilings and wall-to-wall windows. There's a walk-in closet with its own window and an ensuite master bath with soaker tub and glass shower enclosure. Doors from the bathroom open to a second-floor terrace facing the lake.

Despite the transparency, Mr. Johnston points out that residents can still maintain their privacy. Trees partly screen the view. The park acts as a buffer.

"There's no sidewalk in front of the house," says Mr. Johnston, pointing to the park across the street and the boardwalk beyond. "It forces people away from the house."

The designers add that it would be easy to install a bottom-up blind that would add privacy but still allow people inside the home to see the trees and the water.

The lower level was also designed in order to bring in as much light as possible and create extra living space that doesn't feel like a basement.

Throughout the house, the designers chose a streamlined palette of white walls, walnut wood cabinetry and stone tile. In the master bathroom, for example, a serene grey marble has been cut to emphasize the striations in the rock instead of the more ornamental swirls.

The simplified palette brings cohesion she says, but the effect is not cold or stark because the walnut is so warm and the stone is textured.

Architects generally prefer while walls, adds Ms. Cheong, because they allow residents to see sunlight and shade.

"There's so much colour around us," says Mr. Fantauzzi of the white backdrop. "Furniture in a modern house can stand out."

To help future residents maintain the spare appearance, the designers had cabinets, bookshelves and storage space built in.

Ms. Cheong, who self-identifies as an obsessive about order and detail, found a clever hiding spot for the ironing board, for example, and concealed a second-floor laundry area behind walnut wood doors. In the front entrance, a built-in wardrobe provides storage for all kinds of accoutrements. A beautiful vestibule doesn't look so appealing with boots strewn all over, she points out.

"In a minimal home, you basically need a lot of storage to keep it minimal," she says.

Mr. Johnston agrees that maintaining that austerity is a challenge for many.

"I think it's a difficult thing for many people to hold back on because there are so many lovely things in the world."

But at 2 Alfresco Lawn, the cityscape, the trees and the lake are meant to provide much of the colour.

"This house really welcomes the outdoors," says Mr. Fantauzzi. He points to a bench in the back garden. "You can sit on the bench and see the water," so transparent is the house.

Mr. Fantauzzi is a graduate of the architecture program at Carleton University, while Ms. Cheong graduated from the interior design program at the University of Manitoba.

It's the first time that the couple has built a house on spec. They say that most houses of contemporary design in Toronto seem to be custom-built for owners who never want to leave.

Mr. Johnston agrees that it's monumentally difficult for homeowners who prefer modernist design to find a house in the more established areas of the city but he has more and more clients clamouring for it. The house at 2 Alfresco Lawn reminds him of a residence one might find in California's Venice Beach.

"It's a different way of living and it's a different way of understanding your environment and there's a growing appetite for it in every neighbourhood."

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Follow on Twitter: @CarolynIreland


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