Marcia Kredentser is used to walking into daughter Neve's bedroom and finding it turned into a film studio – or a dance theatre. Recently the nine-year-old and her friend went into the restaurant business, with a pull-out shelf serving as the bar.
"She plays up here, she has her friends up here, she shoots movies up here," says Ms. Kredentser of the third-floor haven. "She constantly feels free to change it into whatever she wants."
Ms. Kredentser and her husband, Jeff Buttle, brought in Toronto-based Plant Architect when they decided to renovate their semi-detached Toronto house in order to create a bedroom and playroom for Neve.
The house was a bit cramped for two parents and the "explosion of plastic" that a child brought, explains Ms. Kredentser. The second floor was extremely dark. The third floor – accessible only by a rickety stair and a hatch – didn't offer much more than a pokey storage space. They considered moving but decided to expand instead.
Plant Architect principal Lisa Rapoport oversaw the addition that would provide a bedroom and playroom for Neve and bring light down through the house. She urged the couple to achieve all of that without being too impolite to the neighbours. She also saw the opportunity to create a space that would inspire Neve's appreciable creativity and imagination.
It wasn't until the project was finished, says Ms. Kredentser, that she looked out the windows on three sides and appreciated the feeling of lodging in the treetops. The family had been so focused on planning the interior, they hadn't given a lot of thought to the exterior.
"Being up in the trees was the unexpected, amazing bonus," Ms. Kredentser said.
Mr. Buttle and Ms. Kredentser have long been interested in modern architecture and design so for them there was no question the space should be modern – even though their house dates to the early 20th century and retains the dark wood trim and smaller rooms typical of the era.
"It was always going to be modern," Mr. Buttle said. "We had no intention of aping what was already here."
Ms. Rapoport thought that lifting the roof with an additional dormer at the front of the house would impose on the neighbours and the streetscape. Instead she suggested keeping the roof line low at the front, then popping it up and adding a clerestory window approximately in the middle. That solution created a more interesting interior and also didn't overpower the other half of the semi.
"It can look very strange to do one side and not the other," she says. In this case, "it changes the aspect from the street but it's not as obvious. On the front it's very diminutive and on the back it's kind of like a treehouse."
The interior of the room offers an alcove that currently houses Neve's bed. There's a place for sleeping, a corner for landscape painting, a nook for reading and space for a table and chairs. The loft is a place to keep oversized bears.
The room is also designed to be adaptable as Neve gets older. Eventually the alcove might be turned into a niche for studying, for example, and the bed could go under the window.
The variation in the levels and planes makes it more interesting and infinitely flexible, Ms. Rapoport said.
"It creates these different spaces that can be inhabited in different ways. Each space has its own character and scale."
The palette was kept simple and bright with wood, white walls and a couple of dashes of peacock blue. Windows are trimmed in fir, the floor is made of organic bamboo ply and the built-ins are a lighter blond. Most of the colour comes from toys and Neve's own handiwork.
"The white is refreshing in that house," Ms. Rapoport said. "And she didn't need any more stimulation."
Ms. Kredentser also asked for lots of built-in cupboards and places to contain the art supplies, books, stuffed dogs, costumes and woodworking tools that come along with being a preteen girl. The architects suggested more open storage but Ms. Kredentser pushed for drawers, cubby holes and "places to hide things."
Neve is still finding uses for those hiding spots beyond their original purpose. To reach the window seat, for example, she needed something to step up on. Ms. Rapoport made room for storage underneath and the little girl turned it into a sort of tickle box for her costumes. A storage space has become a tunnel.
The architect points out that the room could also just as easily become a bedroom, study or family room when Neve grows up or if the couple ever decides to sell.
"Being able to crawl around the passages is just her being kidlike and using her imagination," Ms. Rapoport said, "but you could also stuff it with sleeping bags."
Ms. Rapoport added a skylight over the staircase and used translucent glass in the rail to bring light through the centre of the house. The stairs have no risers so more daylight flows through.
The architect chose oak for the stair railing and cap because it works well with the bamboo but doesn't match it. It also ties in with the trim in the original part of the house.
She points out that this is a common dilemma with the "different and interesting and cranky renovation of a Toronto house. How do you make that transition feel appropriate?"
In this case it would have been easy to replicate the old woodwork but they all agreed that was not what they wanted, she adds.
Another benefit in the parents' view was that Neve had the opportunity to participate, learn about the entire process and sit in on planning sessions with professionals.
"Neve was at every meeting – even the budget meetings," Ms. Rapoport says in agreement.
Neve, who has long enjoyed working with clay and wood, now builds even more of her own wigwams, barns and houses.
Ms. Kredentser and Mr. Buttle declined to disclose their budget but they acknowledge that most homeowners are more likely to put money into kitchens, bathrooms and principal rooms with an eye to the home's appreciation.
They say they are happy they made a beautiful room for their daughter on the third floor while they also reclaimed a couple of rooms on the second floor for their own home offices.
"We could have spent money and got a better return in another part of the house but that wasn't really in consideration," says Ms. Kredentser. "Why shouldn't she be up here – she loves it."