Ten years ago, during a drive to tour the carnage in Don Mills – the original architect-designed homes in this planned “New Town” of the early-1950s were falling like dominoes and being replaced with “monster homes” – I wrote: “It’s already too late for Norden Crescent.”
While it’s true Norden would never be allowed into a Heritage Conservation District should Don Millers ever champion one (and neither would other streets mentioned back then, such as Kirkdale Crescent or Banbury Road), the monsters didn’t consume everything in their path.
In fact, one home, sitting right at the tip of Norden’s crescent, stands proudly as an example of what a little bit of consideration for history, green space and sustainability can achieve while still adding valuable square footage to accommodate a growing family. And compared with the other, beefed-up homes, Sarah and Matt Sherman’s place does look a little bit little: a mighty mouse amongst the monsters, perhaps?
It was important, Ms. Sherman said, “to stay within that original Don Mills design of having a lot of green space” around the house; back in 1952, when 27-year-old planner Macklin Hancock and his even younger architect-in-charge, 25-year-old Douglas Lee, were planning the Modernist Mecca, they gave each home a 60-foot frontage so everyone would enjoy a park-like setting.
Unfortunately, 60 years later, too many people have been using that extra land to do the opposite, Mr. Sherman said, by proposing new builds that routinely ooze right to the edges of their lots. “And they’re getting approved,” he lamented.
So, when the Shermans decided to bite the renovation bullet about three years ago, not only did they vow to preserve their green buffer, they also decided to look for an architect who would find creative ways to deliver more interior space while staying “green” in their methodology. Unfortunately, the first few architects they met kept focusing on resale value.
“They were not listening to our story and our list of needs,” Ms. Sherman said. “We said we didn’t want to create a lot of waste, we wanted to have an energy-efficient home and we just needed a little more sleeping space upstairs in order for everybody to get along well.”
Driving past a construction site on her way to work one day, Ms. Sherman, a teacher, saw a sign that read “Sustainable.” She took that as a sign, and called Paul Dowsett and his green team at Sustainable.TO. “We insisted with Paul [that] we were not to apply for a single variance,” Ms. Sherman said. “We wanted everything to be within the current by-laws.”
The Shermans’ diminutive saltbox-style home didn’t faze Sustainable. They’d worked on many postwar homes in the past, so they knew the Don Mills story well. More importantly, they knew that a few bold architectural strokes could make all the difference.
At the front of the home, the steep pitch of the roof would be retained – it’s now clad in light-reflecting Galvalume and makes for a great surface for the home’s 29 new solar panels – and only a small, projecting box a little wider than a window would travel up the façade. That box, however, would enlarge the kitchen on the main floor and give the Shermans’ two boys more bedroom space on the formerly pint-sized second floor.
The other bold stroke? Luckily, the home’s original owners – the Shermans purchased from them in 2005 – had extended their living room into the backyard in the 1970s, so Sustainable proposed adding a second storey on top to create a large master bedroom. Adding square footage to the back of one’s home is something the Shermans have advocated for when fighting monster-home proposals in the past: “Use your own space, don’t use our neighbouring, shared space,” Ms. Sherman said.
“You do go into some of these houses that have been built here, and they’re twice the size of this,” said Mr. Sherman, a self-described “technical and geeky” engineer and the proud owner of an electric car. “And I’m sure there’re rooms that they never use.”
“They’re lovely houses,” Ms. Sherman added, playing diplomat.
“And they’re lovely people. It’s what they want, so, whatever,” Mr. Sherman finished with a shrug.
Wanting to consume less energy, the Shermans also asked Sustainable to insulate their walls with Rockwool made in Milton, Ont., and add made-in-Toronto inline fibreglass windows to new portions of the build (they didn’t want to create excess waste, so still-serviceable vinyl windows were retained). Insulation was also added underneath the 1970s living-room addition, since thermal bridging had been an issue.
To keep the Canadian theme going, Maibec wood siding was added to the mix.
While there were a few things used that weren’t as green as the couple would’ve liked, “we did as much as we could,” said Mr. Sherman, who estimates that architect’s fees and construction by Plumb Construction Management came in at just less than $300,000.
It’s all about being “thoughtful” about one’s choices, Ms. Sherman said, without a hint of condemnation.
And, maybe, Mr. Sherman offered, that thoughtfulness will be contagious: “Hopefully it’s a growing movement, not a shrinking thing.”
“With this house, there was a lot of value still,” said Sustainable’s environmental design expert, Joel Anderson. “There was the brick, which adds thermal mass to the walls, and there was the character of it that was original to the neighbourhood, and [the Shermans] recognized that.”
Perhaps it’s not too late for Norden Crescent after all.