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Alexandra Palmer’s new space is a stone’s throw from her old Edwardian home in Toronto’s West End. But it’s a century away in terms of design.

Ms. Palmer, a senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum who works with textiles and fashion, loved the venerable wood-filled Edwardian and appreciated its heritage detail. But it had a lot of underutilized space, like the dining room and the long hallways. The rooms were all enclosed, separate units, as was typical of the style.

It was time for something open and energy-efficient, a home she could help create from the ground up to suit the way she lives. “I wanted a modern house,” she says, sitting at the table in the light-filled kitchen/dining area at the front of her new home. “I like the design process. It’s problem-solving and it’s fun.”

Uninterested in leaving the neighbourhood or destroying an elegant old home, she scouted the area for an appropriate teardown.

The fake-brick frame house on an alleyway was ideal because it had no redeeming architectural features and had already been gutted when it came on the market. She found LGA Architectural Partners, a firm that shared her appreciation of conservation, respect for the streetscape and love of modernism.

“I didn’t want marble bathrooms,” Ms. Palmer explains. “Everything is very exploded at the moment and everyone is building these enormous places and I wanted something smaller than I had. I wanted less than what I had. This house is very compact. Every space is used.”

She also valued LGA’s collaborative approach.

“I was looking for an architect I could work with, as opposed to someone who would just impose their ideas on me,” she says. “This is my home. I didn’t want a showcase.”

In the end, she got both.

All photos by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

The 2,800-square-foot home suits her needs perfectly, as well as being a model of how designers can start with a relatively small footprint and create a dwelling that feels spacious on the inside by making the most of each square foot.

“It was a good match-up,” says Yvonne Popovska, an LGA architect who worked on the project. “We didn’t have to educate Alexandra on why a modern house was a good idea. She already knew it was a good idea.”

From the street, the cedar-clad home looks like a two-storey, in keeping with the height of the neighbouring houses, but the roof slopes up in the back, which makes room for a third level not obvious from the front.

Past the natural-looking but well-planned front yard of Russian sage, hydrangea and grasses, it’s a few steps up to the tempered-glass front door, which opens into an entryway and then into a space separated from the kitchen by a low counter. Visitors come into the kitchen, but not quite, which creates a sense of a progressive entry. As elsewhere in the house, the rooms are both open and defined.

From the kitchen, stairs lead down to the 640-square-foot basement, which Ms. Palmer refers to as “kidland.” That her two teenaged sons have to come through the dining area to make it down the stairs is not an accident. It’s the result of a thoughtful planning.

“I didn’t want the kids to come in and go down to the basement without saying hello,” she says. “It was important to me that they couldn’t just sneak off.”

The kitchen of Canadian maple veneer cabinets, engineered quartz counters and tempered glass backsplash is an airy space that reflects the play of light poring in from the large windows in the front as well as the one facing onto the alleyway.

“I wanted big windows and I wanted light,” Ms. Palmer says. “But I didn’t understand how really transformative that would be.”

From the kitchen area, it’s a few steps down to the sunken living room at the back of the house. The room is on grade, Ms. Popovska explains, so that the huge sliding glass doors open seamlessly into the backyard garden.

The room, which has built-in shelving that doubles as seating space for entertaining, is decorated with vintage furniture, the result of Ms. Palmer’s passion for scouring “junk shops” to find pieces she likes and which reflect design trends from the early days of modernism. She brought most of the items from her old house into the new space, in which they are very much at home.

Even the floor-to-ceiling curtains on the sliding door are vintage. “And they fit perfectly,” Ms. Palmer says. “It’s like a miracle.”

The room is painted white, which allows the furnishings, textiles and artwork – chosen and arranged with a curatorial eye – to form a colourful and pleasing pastiche.

“You often walk into a modern house and you expect the chairs and the couch and everything to match because people went to the modern furniture store and checked everything off the list,” Ms. Popovska says. “But Alexandra has her own collection and her own kind of style. It makes the space more dynamic.”

At the top of the open stairs leading to the second floor is a large skylight that helps with brightness and also improves energy conservation. It can be opened to let warm air escape in the summertime, which cuts down on having to use the air conditioner.

This so-called passive approach to energy saving was chosen after it was deemed too expensive to employ the latest in “green” technologies, such as solar heating and green roofs.

Water-based radiant heating in the concrete floors and a gas fireplace are the only heat sources. This worked well, even through Toronto’s brutal winter, because the house is filled with sunlight and is well-insulated, Ms. Popovska explains.

On the second floor are the boys’ bedrooms, the laundry, and a bathroom. A sliding door can be closed to seal off the study, the “kid-free zone,” where Ms. Palmer does her research and writing in front of a huge window that overlooks her garden and what she hopes will one day be a green roof on the garage. There are plenty of shelves for books and storage space that hides “a million sins.”

Another flight of stairs leads up to the sun-filled master bedroom and a bathroom with another skylight. When the sliding door is closed on the second floor, the study and master bedroom function as a unit, distinct from the rest of the house.

Next on the tour is the back yard, where high wood fences on each side and the garage at the back create the feeling of being in a courtyard, sheltered from the world beyond. With the exception of a place for a table and chairs, the space is entirely devoted to a flourishing garden of foliage and flowers.

It’s a sanctuary for birds and butterflies. And for Ms. Palmer, who enjoys creating her outside space as much as she did the space inside.

“Oh, there’s one of my cardinals,” she says, explaining that she intended the garden to attract the birds from her old yard – old friends she didn’t want to leave behind when she made her leap into the new.

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