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home of the week

87 Highland Cres.

Asking price: $7.995-million

Taxes: $30,751.87 (2010)

Lot size: 134 X 395 feet (irregular)

Square footage: Approx. 4,200 above ground and 3,178 on the lower level.

Listing agent: Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd. (Eileen Farrow)

The Back Story

When Shim-Sutcliffe Architects began construction of their Weathering Steel House on a precipice above the Don River Valley, even clients David and Yvonne Fleck were taken aback by the boldness of the architecture taking shape.

The lines were geometric; the exterior was clad in aggressive blue steel.

And if the Flecks were uncertain, a few of their neighbours emerged from the more traditional surrounding houses to express open hostility.

The startled residents didn't know then the international acclaim that would descend on the north Toronto street of Highland Cres.

Brigitte Shim remembers the controversy with relish. From the start, she and husband Howard Sutcliffe designed the house to relate to the ravine and the natural woodland outside. The steel is an example of that relationship, she explains, because it changes with exposure to the climate.

"It's interactive with the environment," says Ms. Shim. "We think of the steel not as hard and cold, but warm and rich."

Over time, the steel has oxidized to a deep, rich brown that blends with the mahogany and douglas fir. The soft pines, spruce and juniper bushes have also grown up around the building.

"What might have stood out really abruptly when it was first installed doesn't now," says Ms. Shim. "The house has a context."

Mr. Fleck also recalls the anxiety the couple felt during the two years of construction while the eyes of the entire street turned on No. 87.

"We saw lots of glimpses of what they could do but it wasn't proven," he says of the emerging talents of Shim-Sutcliffe. "To think for one minute that you're not nervous yourself is wrong."

After the house was completed in 2000, the Flecks were relieved to find that they loved it immediately. But they still weren't sure about the public reception. Soon afterwards, the New York Times featured the house in a two-page spread and the house was showcased in international publications.

The couple knew then they have created something special, says Mr. Fleck.

As the house gained more accolades, Mr. Fleck received a phone call asking if David Bowie could possibly come by for a tour.

"He's one of my heroes," says Mr. Fleck, who was thrilled to have the rock star in his house.

While public opinion was mellowing, so was the steel wrapped around the exterior.

Ms. Shim says the Weathering Steel House - and the ideas the couple formed around the integration of water, nature, landscape and art - has influenced the duo's work since. The notion of glass folding around a space, for example, is fundamental to the renowned Integral House in Rosedale.

Toronto has grown much more sophisticated in the decade since the house was built, Mr. Fleck believes.

"Now a house like ours is not that crazy any more."

The architecture

The property was a mud lot the Flecks had passed over twice because "everyone thought it had no redeeming qualities," says Ms. Shim.

But they revisited the site and soon the natural flora of the ravine and the landscape design of Neil Turnbull became crucial to creating a design that Ms. Shim describes as "making a place."

The water flowing outside, she says, becomes part of everyday life. The people inside feel a connection to the environment when they see the water in the ponds and pool turn to fog, steam and ice.

The main floor has a living room, family room, dining room and kitchen which all look into the gardens surrounding the house. The open concept plan means that every room is comfortable and well-used, Mr. Fleck says.

The architects chose windows that frame each vista with mahogany, rather than present an unimpeded wall of glass.

Upstairs, the children's bedrooms and a home office are on one side while the parents have their own retreat on the other.

The large master bedroom has an ensuite bathroom and a view as far as the CN Tower. In winter, when the leaves have fallen from the trees, the Flecks can see the lights of the downtown skyline.

On the lower level, the space has been opened up to an outdoor garden, with floor-to-ceiling windows to bring in light and air.

Best feature

At the focal point of the main floor, a tall glass and mahogany door pivots open above a reflecting pool in the garden. Water flows from that area into a second reflecting pool filled with brilliantly-coloured koi and water lilies. Beyond that, a black-bottomed swimming pool with an infinity edge stretches to the precipice of the ravine.

"It's like the central soul of the house," says Ms. Shim.

A gutter at roof-height directs rainwater to the pond below.

"We love water, we love movement of water, we love the sound of water," says Mr. Fleck.

The deep colour of the pool looks more natural than a turquoise hue, he adds. "It's more like a river."

When the door is open, air and the sound of falling water flows in. The dining room and living room both offer residents a vantage point from which to gaze at the pools, the surrounding terraces and the greenery.

The architecture also lets residents experience the water in different ways depending on whether they are outside or in, close up or distant, says Mr. Fleck.

"It makes the pool like a piece of art. It's something you have to discover."