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How DIY ingenuity inspired an architect’s flexible townhouse design

Maurizio Trotta moved to Canada with his family from his native Calabria in Italy when he was seven. In the years following his arrival, he picked up an appreciation for things that the immigrant experience often offers newcomers in abundance – the value of DIY ingenuity and industry, for example, and the advantages of being versatile and adaptable.

Then Mr. Trotta grew up, went to the University of Toronto, and became an architect in our town. As we learn from a small, interesting residential project he has designed and developed in Toronto's west-side Brockton Village district, he has tried to integrate those practical childhood lessons about flexibility and initiative into the stuff of infill architecture. The result is a cluster of townhomes that, Mr. Trotta hopes, will attract the do-it-yourselfers among Toronto's house-hunters.

Called Threshold 31, the modestly plain complex contains four units, three of them 1,350 square feet in area, and one at 1,450 square feet. The suites range in price from $700,000 to $800,000, which is roughly where century-old detached houses start in this popular part of the city.

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The space in each townhouse is arrayed on three levels – plus, every unit has a walk-up deck on the rooftop of the building, and three of the four have gardens accessible from the lowest level.

This bottom storey is situated three feet below grade and is lit by windows about five-feet tall. It's deep enough, that is, to be separate from the main body of the house, but not so deep that it becomes a basement. The idea here, Mr. Trotta told me, is that this level (which probably won't have the gloomy, underground feel of a basement) could become a lair for a teenager, a home gym or office, or simply a third bedroom.

Alternatively, the homeowner could, if he chose and the city were persuaded to go along with the scheme, easily convert it into a rental apartment with its own tiny garden. In any case, the bottom of the house is outfitted with gas and water connections for a kitchen, and with a full washroom. It could be anything.

The second level of the house, which is just over 12 feet wide – the architect calls it the piano nobile – is a typical open-plan arrangement with the kitchen at the rear, dining for six or 12 in the middle, and a living-room area near the front window. Anyone used to condo living will find no surprises there.

The third storey, however, shows the same reluctance to dedicate space to a fixed use that we find in the lowest of the three levels. Up there are a bathroom and two more rooms, one of them a little over 144 square feet in area, the other measuring about 72 square feet. The plans indicate that neither room has a clothes closet, but Mr. Trotta will furnish portable armoires once his client has established which area will become a bedroom.

In the most likely scenario, the larger of the two rooms will be the master bedroom, and the smaller will become the sleeping quarters of a child, or a nursery for an infant. Another possibility foreseen by the architect makes the smaller room into a dressing area, thereby turning the entire top floor into a master suite. For a childless couple, or a family with one child safely stowed in the first-storey apartment, the second upstairs room could also become a media den, a library or a studio.

I should add here that I'm not talking about a normal three-bedroom dwelling with roughly equal privacy for each compartment. In the houses of Threshold 31, the lowest-level suite is firmly separable from what's above it, while the smaller of the two top-floor rooms is almost a passageway: The traffic pattern between the central hall and the staircase up to the roof deck goes right through a corner of the room.

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The architect intends that, over the lifetime of the building, each townhome in it will undergo numerous transformations. The complex will acquire a history, that is, inscribed in its physical fabric by successive generations of fixer-uppers, handymen and handywomen.

I am not sure that the interiors are quite as open to change as Mr. Trotta would like – though the fact that he would like them to be open makes this project noteworthy. Most designers, after all, have a confident ambition for their residential handiwork: that, once built out, it will never need to be touched. Mr. Trotta, in contrast, invites interventions – lots of them. I hope some day to learn what his home buyers do with the opportunities he has attempted to provide.

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John More


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