Skip to main content

A view of the verdant backyard, framed by Spanish cedar allow for views to branch out to.Craig A. Williams

If you read design magazines, you will see old houses that have been transformed by contemporary renovations – every baseboard painted white, every faucet replaced, a clean new aesthetic imposed on every room.

In real life, things are usually messier. Most renovations, even large ones, don't go all the way. Most people will hesitate to demolish parts of their home that are still good enough – out of sentiment, environmentalism, or simply financial probity. This is how old houses come to bear the marks of different generations.

A recent commission by Toronto's Plant Architect shows how well such a mixture can work. Led by architect Mary Tremain, the work – a small addition that revamps the back of a two-storey Arts and Crafts house – integrates thoughtful and well-detailed contemporary interventions with an architectural antique from the 1920s. And both eras come out looking good.

From the front door, there's no evidence of the contemporary addition. The house, a generously sized Arts and Crafts box, has much of what real estate agents call original charm: railings, stairs and wainscoting made from solid oak remain intact. The owners, a young family who have lived there for about a decade, had already made a series of small updates, but the backside remained basically untouched. Like many houses of its age, it was closed off at the back; an uninsulated sun porch and small windows cut off the kitchen from the verdant, south-facing backyard. A partial renovation in the nineties had introduced a contemporary open kitchen, but all the back-of-house barriers remained.

With a third child on the way, the owners were ready to tackle them. Their goals: to bring some views into the kitchen while expanding storage and floor space, adding a desk for the kids to do homework, and improving the stairs to the basement. And as one of the owners explains, they had mixed emotions about what approach to take. "My husband loves contemporary design and I like the old," she says. "The challenge was to make us both happy."

Plant was the right firm for them to call: a design firm that is highly skilled, but not dogmatic in approach. Over 17 years, they've been doing renovations, new houses, larger buildings and landscape projects – culminating in the current reno of Nathan Phillips Square. On this more modest job, Tremain and project architect Lisa Dietrich oversaw the renovation, addition and a limited redesign of the garden. And while their work is clearly in the modernist tradition, they are not afraid of colour, history or tasteful ornament. "I really like the way that the character of a house might change from entrance to back," says Tremain. "It might be a change in style, but if it's done well and with the same quality of workmanship, it really tells the story about the history of the house."

That is definitely the case here. The kitchen and dining area – part 1920s, part 1990s – remain. But they extend out a few feet farther toward the backyard; a custom desk, made of dark-stained oak, looks out through a very large window framed in Spanish cedar. To the right, a series of cabinets holds a microwave and pantry storage; to the left, a new stair winds down to the basement. The spaces are clearly defined and well-linked.

The materials and details, however, add a layer of complexity. A pendant light by Vancouver's Bocci hangs over the stair, a constellation of glass and tiny points of light. The extensive new cabinetry and woodwork comes in two hues, the dark oak – which matches the old wainscoting – and a white oak with a pale stain that is very of-the-moment. A few accents of hot orange spice it up, including a handrail leading down to the basement. This is a rounded channel cut into a wall of wood, comfortable under the palm and very 21st century in its composition. ("And great for racing Hot Wheels, it turns out," the mother of three says dryly.)

From the backyard, the addition can be seen for what it is: a tasteful expansion that leaves the dignity of the house intact. At ground level, a new flagstone patio defines the base of the addition. Above that, the kitchen's big window expands into a rectangular bay. "It has the feeling of a box that's hovering above the ground, and the second floor addition reads like another box above that," Tremain explains. "It's a very contemporary addition, but the materials and the details marry it into the old house."

It's wrapped in knot-free clear cedar and engineered wood panels; a clear glass balcony railing upstairs; and copper flashing that steps down both sides of the house, an allusion to the owners' profession as geologists. The natural materials are intended to weather with age, an idea that appeals to the owners, and also – as Tremain argues – makes them mix well with the house's weathered brick and the grey-painted cedar shakes. "We liked the existing detail at the top of the house, and we wanted to work with it."

Upstairs, the second floor addition houses a new bathroom, carved out of the old sun porch. This takes advantage of the spectacular south view, which you can see as you stand at the sink. But that victory, the client recalls, posed a problem: "My husband asked: Where am I going to shave?" Plant came up with a poetic solution: a round, steel-framed mirror that hangs on a post over the sink. The wife can remove it when she likes, for a clear view over the tree canopy, and the riotous wisteria on top of the garage behind house.

And there is a lesson there: When an old house presents a challenge, sometimes the best answer is to massage it rather than perform major surgery. The healthy budget of this project allowed for such moves to be made tastefully and with a certain level of quality. That mirror is custom, and it is beautiful; so is a stainless-steel gate at the corner of the house. But as Tremain accurately points out, such moves wouldn't have been possible if the owners had tried to rebuild more of the old house. Instead, they left well enough alone, built new, beautifully, and are letting time make its mark. The copper is already changing colour, and it looks good.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe