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Renovation adds new vigour to a sagging Toronto home

Virtue St. House.

Ben Rahn/A-Frame

No. 2 Virtue St. was a sagging brick laneway house on a dead-end street in Toronto's West End, north of Queen Street. But to the couple who had lived here for more than 20 years, the well-weathered dwelling was home.

They liked their quiet spot at the end of a street of 19th-century row houses and did not want to move. Nor did they want to tear down and start over. They were committed to the neighbourhood and the street.

The solution was a facelift.

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With creative input from Reigo & Bauer, and without changing the basic footprint, they ended up with an updated home in a unique contemporary skin.

Designer Merike Bauer is used to working with small spaces in older sections of the city, but this job posed unusual challenges. One was that the house sits on an unusual L-shaped lot, the product of long-ago severance decisions that created a street out of what had been a back-end laneway.

The two-storey, two-bedroom house had grown in stages over the decades, most likely starting life pre-1920 as a one-level outbuilding of some sort.

Not only was the brick in bad condition, it was also a hodgepodge of patch jobs with sections that no longer ran in straight lines. A new coat of paint, as some homeowners on the street had opted for, would not have solved that problem. And stucco was rejected as unappealing and potentially hard to maintain.

The owners, originally from Germany, liked the solution of fibre cement panels – a product that originated there and is becoming popular in Europe and starting to catch on in North America. Intended as a "skin" to modernize existing structures, the panels have a finely lined surface, which give them a more organic look than the alternative of high-pressure laminate. The white colour reflects the heat in the summer, and a ventilated rain screen has open horizontal joints to allow air to pass through and moisture to drain out.

The panels, cut to fit in a repeating pattern that worked with the shape of the doors and windows, are rot-proof and easy to maintain. They were installed with rivets on top of a metal subframe attached to the brick.

The owners also opted for a lighter-coloured, better insulated roof, which is also helping with energy conservation.

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"They have reduced heating and air conditioning costs dramatically," said Stephen Bauer, who also worked on the project, which took two years to design and complete.

The designers removed the heavy front porch and replaced the door with a custom steel model, also from Germany, which adds to the contemporary feel. They replaced the upstairs bay window with a flat design with weathered zinc cladding on the outside and a nearly invisible frame inside, which opened up the space and the view. They turned the other front-facing upstairs window into a door opening onto a new second-floor balcony, which provides a space for sitting in the sun.

The balcony is a steel frame supported by a zigzag grid of powder-coated aluminum in a delightfully unexpected shade of dark turquoise. The vibrant, fresh colour, chosen to contrast with the white panels, provides an interesting focal point for the façade. It also helped head off a domestic disagreement – one of the owners wanted blue, the other wanted green.

Coincidentally, the city did its part to improve the look by replacing the curb and an old fire hydrant that had finally sprung a leak after being repeatedly hit over the years by drivers turning around in the tight space at the dead end.

A creative solution was found to prevent any future battering of the little front yard. The area was covered with concrete pavers, and stainless-steel bollards were installed to thwart frustrated drivers.

A remake of the back of the house is equally interesting, creating a welcoming oasis in the shade of a giant walnut tree. The first thing to go was the elevated deck, which immediately added more sense of space and allowed light to flow to what had been the original basement, now used as an office. The office window was also enlarged.

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Stairs leading up to the first floor are of metal grating, which also allows in more light. And the same colour of powder-coated aluminum rails tie in with the front of the house and provide an interesting counterpoint to the white cement panels in the back.

A cedar fence surrounds the cozy space and slides open to reveal an ingenious hidden storage area for recycling bins, garbage cans, garden tools and bicycles. Cedar planters heavy with hydrangeas and other low-light plants complete the calming vibe of the back yard.

But the improvements didn't stop there. Although they originally had been hired to provide a new façade for the 1,340-square-foot home, the team ended up designing a new kitchen and bathroom and providing creative solutions for access to the back and an upstairs that had too much hallway and not enough space in the bedrooms.

"The owner had given up trying to find a way to improve the space," Mr. Bauer said. But knocking out and rearranging walls proved successful in improving the flow. Light tubes, also known as sun tunnels, were installed to allow diffused natural light into the top floor.

"It's gratifying to improve the way people live," said Ms. Bauer, adding that Toronto's stock of aging real estate is a ripe environment for new design solutions. "This project was really satisfying and fun."

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