Like players of extreme sports, architects of detached infill housing must downright relish difficulty. Shoe-horning livable modern space into built-up city fabric is rarely easy, after all, and ensuring that home-owners get adequate sunshine and ventilation in tight circumstances is often tricky.
Then there's the aesthetic problem. Short of retiring timidly and taking on the appearance of everything else in the old neighbourhood – almost always a bad move, in my view – how should an infill house make a fresh mark on its streetscape and surroundings?
Boldly, is the answer given by the three young designers of an attractive new 1,800-square-foot residence in the Davisville district of uptown Toronto. (This striking house is currently on the market for just over $1.6-million.)
Architect Nima Javidi and associates Hanieh Rezaie and Behnaz Assadi are the authors and developers of this unusual project, which they call Offset House. The name indicates their most conspicuous design gesture, intended to maximize the building's southern exposure.
Working with a long, skinny lot that runs east-west, the team dropped the walk-in level of the house along the southern edge of the property, then set down an upper level that's pulled smartly northward. The top volume appears to be cantilevered laterally over the lower volume, in other words, and the whole composition looks like two bricks stacked inexactly on top of one another. If I'm making this arrangement sound complicated, it's really not fussy or eccentric at all – and it gives the building an up-tempo, modern face (finished in white stucco, large wood-framed windows and ornamental wooden shutters) that brightens an otherwise dowdy streetscape.
Interestingly, the scheme did not require any easing or adjustment of the zoning bylaws that prevail in this neighbourhood: The structure sits neatly inside the envelope occupied by the two-storey dwelling that preceded it.
But while the exterior of Offset House is modest in size and respectful of building scales round about, the interior is sleek and chic, and efficient without being even slightly chilly. It's the kind of place, one imagines, that will appeal to a couple who began their life together in a little condominium suite in a tower, but who now want to start a family. Most things the couple learned to like about condo living are here: the hardwood floors, the open plan on the first level, big windows everywhere, the modern kitchen and bathrooms. The ceilings are taller than they would be in a condo, however – almost 16 feet in the master bedroom, 10 feet in the other two bedrooms.
And the level of detail is certainly higher than what most condo-dwellers can afford, or even find. During a recent visit to Offset House, I was struck by the engagingly intricate interlocking of spaces, for example. Ceiling heights vary according to what's above: a rear bedroom perched high in the treetops allows the area below to billow, while the master bedroom, suspended in the centre of the building, compresses the kitchen and dining area, lending them welcome intimacy.
As far as detail goes, however, the most impressive feature is the care taken by the designers to guarantee that each space (even in the hard-to-light middle) is washed by natural light. The stairwell and the long bridge connecting the two smaller bedrooms, for example, is illuminated by a sequence of skylights that runs the length of the flat roof, bringing in lots of Toronto's soft cloud-shine and whatever direct sunshine we get here.
Offset House is a good, small instance of deft creative infill: modern without being stiff or cheerless, artistically inventive without being outlandish, urbane and sophisticated without a trace of pedantry. It's also an imaginative contribution to Toronto's evolving idea of the little, side-street contemporary house – a building type that's bound to be ever more important as local land prices continue to soar.