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How this North Toronto home maximizes natural light in subtle ways

As local architectural history goes, the rapid build-out of the old town of North Toronto after annexation by the city in 1912 left a legacy of mixed blessings in its wake.

On one hand, the transformation of the district from farmland into a streetcar suburb created the many comfortably conservative single-family houses that have always attracted well-off (but not grand) members of the middle class. North Toronto has good schools, well-rooted church and civic communities, and numerous streetscapes that speak eloquently of traditional social and cultural values.

Like countless others put up elsewhere in Toronto before yesterday, however, the houses in this area tend to be dark on the inside and, until renovated, closed off from the garden at the rear. So if you want to live in North Toronto – there are several excellent reasons to do so – and also want to enjoy all the light that's available from Hogtown's various skies and appreciate contemporary architectural expressions, you may well be thinking of building your residence from scratch.

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Such was the process of thought that prompted an academic researcher and his wife, both former bankers, to scour the Internet for the names of up-to-speed designers, and eventually to become the clients of Toronto architect and artist Paul Raff. The thoughtful, 2,500-square-foot result of Mr. Raff's well-focused intervention in North Toronto is called Counterpoint House – an apt name, as it turns out, since the composition is a disciplined harmonic whole fashioned from closely rhyming elements.

Here, as elsewhere in Mr. Raff's work, all these customized elements – horizontal and vertical windows, doors, glass walls, the openings between spaces within – are responses to the qualities of light peculiar to Toronto's latitude, and to the south-facing orientation of the flat-roofed house itself.

In order to invite maximum illumination into the centre of the building, for example, the architect has pushed the broad-windowed study to the streetside façade of the entrance level and pulled back the second-storey volume from off the top of the study and entry hall. He has then carved a horizontal window, almost as wide as the dwelling, in the façade of the pulled-back portion. Light penetrates deep into the interior, without resorting to skylights.

Which, of course, could be a problem for the residents of a Toronto house that opens so generously toward the south. The low winter sunshine here is harsh, unforgiving; and though natural light is softer and higher in summer, the glare might still be punishing. Mr. Raff's solution has involved his design and fabrication of a gauzy aluminum veil to cover the whole expanse of the big clerestory window and the upper-storey openings in the façade – dense enough to shield the interior from hard radiance, but porous and reflective enough to let the living room and kitchen below be showered by light, even on overcast days.

The brightness is also moderated and shaped by the forms Mr. Raff has given to the inside spaces. Instead of being spread out over so much undifferentiated territory, the various components of the main level's open plan have been gathered together and defined carefully.

The sparsely furnished living room, the first area the visitor enters after coming through the spacious entryway, for instance, is almost 16 feet tall, The reason for raising the ceiling so high, the architect said, is to take it right out of peripheral vision, making the living room seem to have no lid at all. In contrast to that expansiveness, the ceiling of the kitchen and dining zone is a more intimate, but still formally imposing, 11 feet off the floor. A wall of glass admits gentle north light to the dining area, separating it from the garden beyond.

As perhaps befits a contemporary residential project dropped into an old-fashioned interwar neighbourhood, this home makes no fuss about itself. Rather, it modestly retires from the street behind its surfacing of grey basalt tile and its tall, silvery aluminum screen – maybe a little too modestly. But if exterior animation is wanted, one finds it at the entrance, where the pale concrete steps and an inward angling of the sombre tile draw the eye toward the handsomely tall, slender wooden front door.

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Counterpoint House is contemporary residential architecture in one of its most subtle registers. Mr. Raff's play with solids and voids, with openings and shuttings, and his shifts of tone and atmosphere, are deft, assured, never noisy. The dwelling works well on the quiet street in old North Toronto for which it was designed.

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John More


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