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Imagine going out to dinner only to find that every restaurant in downtown Toronto offers the same three dishes. If you are buying a new home, that sad scenario comes true, and each of the three – the tower apartment, “stacked townhouse” or townhouse – looks much the same on every menu.

But with six new townhouses on Harbord Street, which are nearly complete and which go up for sale this month, the architects Superkül and developer Oben Flats have added some spice to the recipe. Harbord Towns is a set of high-end family-sized units with a tight Modernist design that is also very liveable. And it makes a strong contribution to the streetscape.

How? By ignoring some of the conventional wisdom about what home buyers want. For one thing, the six houses, each with about 2,000 square feet of living space, don’t look like separate buildings; they read as one unit, a sleekly designed Modernist box of white brick and black stucco seasoned with accents of orange aluminum. They also have no front yards, and the front doors are just a few feet from the sidewalk. This is a very urban condition; there is no room to spare. “That made it critical for the architecture to address all the urban design questions that come up,” Superkül principal Andre D’Elia said on a tour of the model house recently.

Ben Rahn/A-Frame

For instance: Where do the blue bins go? They fit in a lane at the back, which will have shared ownership, connecting to private garages on the back of each house. “It sounds trivial, but you have to think about this to make this [project] really work,” D’Elia said.

And it does, visually, very well. The front façades are neatly tailored with broad front doors, shimmering brick and high-quality windows. Superkül has designed custom screens of weathering steel to cover up the gas meters. The impression of quality is clear. Most infill townhouses face the street with a jumble of stairs, railings, bins, vents and pointless, tiny gardens. Not here. Even if you aren’t paying attention to the architecture, the block feels right.

It got this way through a relationship between Oben Flats – a young, private company with German roots and led by Julian Battiston and Marc Breddermann that is now building three rental apartments – and their architects. Oben has hired Superkül, a 13-year-old firm led by D’Elia and Meg Graham that is among Toronto’s best small architecture offices, for all of its work in Toronto so far. “We were happy to have a different set of eyes” on the architecture, Battiston said, “as opposed to the usual suspects.”

Unlike the builders and architects who do “production housing,” Superkül works consistently in a Modernist idiom, but more importantly it has a high level of ambition and a willingness to test convention.

The firm is also skilled at problem solving, and the interiors of the Harbord houses will deliver the owners all the conveniences along with some unusual twists. Most importantly, the houses have been lifted up a level. Each house starts with a sunken office at the ground floor; you climb the steps to a second-floor living room, dining room and kitchen and then from there onward to two more levels of bedrooms and baths.

Having second-floor living spaces is unconventional in Toronto and it works beautifully. Many other new houses in Toronto have big front windows – but in those houses, “people always have their blinds closed,” D’Elia said in the living room of one of the Harbord houses. “Here, you have a real view, and it is spectacular.” The living room overlooks the street and the neighbouring houses from a height; you can see the CN Tower from the kitchen island. There is no back yard, but there is a back terrace (and another front terrace up on the top floor).

This configuration has been done a few times before, first by Diamond Schmitt Architects and the developer Ken Zuckerman on Dupont Street. But it remains rare.

The interior design at Harbord, also designed by Superkül, have a exceptionally high quality of workmanship and materials for developer houses, including Scavolini kitchens. The floor plans are very efficient; while each house is only 14 feet wide, the three beds and two baths are all well configured. (Plus the entrance way, and all the boots, coats and strollers, are stashed down on the first floor.)

None of this comes cheap; the units are being sold as freehold houses, with asking prices between $1.25-million and $1.45-million, with a condominium fee (set at $188 a month) to cover the driveway and a walkway.

But the developers are clearly hoping that the high quality of the houses, which are being sold as near-finished products, will attract buyers. “Too many builders hype up their projects with fancy brochures and buyers are disappointed when they walk in the door,” Battiston said. “We wanted to show our commitment.” As in a restaurant, the presentation matters; you pay after you’ve seen the product.

The ingredients were less attractive. The Harbord Towns site was a 60-by-90-foot lot once home to a gas station; it would have been hard for many buyers to imagine attractive, high-end residences here, overlooking a busy street.

But now you can see it, and the shape and configuration of the complex may serve as a model for the many small-scale developments that Toronto’s older neighbourhoods are going to see in the coming decades.

The City of Toronto is revising its urban design guidelines for townhouse development; more complexes of this kind, even if they are built with cheaper materials, would be good for Toronto.

Editor's Note: The original print and online version of this story incorrectly said that Oben Flats is a company based in Germany. In fact, it is a company with German roots. This online version has been corrected.