In 2011, when Griff and Sarah Henderson bought their home in Etobicoke’s Humber Valley Village, it was nearly perfect. From the outside, anyway. The couple loved the sweeping front and back lawns, board-and-batten siding and white, Leave it to Beaver-style gables.
Griff and Sarah also loved the treed-in quietude, especially the park right outside their front door. It was a welcome change from the chaos and congestion of their previous downtown digs. “We lived on a street that was really busy with cars,” Sarah says , “Not exactly the safest place for our kids to play outside.”
Inside, though, the rooms were dark, dated and more chopped up than a coleslaw salad. “When we bought it, we knew we were going to renovate,” Griff says . Their plan was to wait a year or two – Griff, who works in advertising, was in the midst of starting a commercial editing business so needed to focus – then do an overhaul.
The couple loves “social cooking,” Griff says . Not just with their two tween-aged kids, but with their many friends in the neighbourhood. Their dream was to have an open, airy ground floor centred on a great kitchen. They wanted their space to be as comfortable and inviting as one of their favourite restaurants, Toronto institution Terroni.
But then the flood hit. In July, 2013, more than 12 centimetres fell on the city in less than three hours. Suddenly, instead of a better place to prep food, their priority was getting rid of the new, unwanted indoor swimming pool in their basement.
At the time, the couple was out west, but their neighbour, Mike de Blois sent them “a photo of our things floating on the water,” Griff says . “He is also a contractor, though, so told us not to worry.” Mr. De Blois drained the deluge and helped fix the structural issues that caused the seepage in the first place.
By 2015, with a drier footing and Griff’s business going well, they knew it was time to revisit their plans. “We love to entertain,” Sarah says . “But I just didn’t feel great about having people in. I didn’t exactly feel house proud.”
They already had a friend-and-saviour of a contractor in Mr. de Blois, but they needed an architect. So based on the recommendation of a friend they hired Barbora Vokac Taylor, who, before running her own eponymous studio, worked for the firm that helped build the Terroni chain, Giannone Petricone Associates.
Fittingly, Ms. Vokac Taylor centred the design around cooking and eating. Instead of the conventional fireplace, “we really took the kitchen island as the hearth of the home,” Vokac Taylor says .
The nearly five-metre long, marble slab is where the family shares meals, catches up after work and school, and where guests gravitate at the beginnings and ends of frequent festivities. Upon entering the home, the island’s importance is clear; it is visible from the front door (not to mention the living and dining rooms) and it’s spot-lit under a brass-lined lamp.
The family’s social nature is present in other ways, too. All the rooms meld together – perfect for large group gatherings – but have little side nooks, such as a breakfast area with cushy banquet seating, for more intimate conversations. The once poky windows are now large lenses, tying the interiors to the street and yards. The stairs are even open riser, so guests can see each other between adjacent areas.
“This is a very social family that likes to spend time with each other and with their friends,” Ms. Vokac Taylor says . “We wanted to have a strong sense of connection between the spaces. The house really captures that sense of togetherness.”
Ms. Vokac Taylor also did an admirable job forging a different sense of connection – the connection between the original, 1950s character of the home and the contemporary addition. Mini panels of wood siding, built by millworker Gibson Greenwood, punctuate the otherwise cool white rooms, adding a retro reminder of the place’s past. Likewise, the breakfast banquet is upholstered in a well-worn, vintage leather, which softens the crisp lines of the new walnut millwork.
Plus, the most contemporary element – the technology – is so well integrated as to almost be completely invisible. In a basement family room, a large movie screen scrolls up and down from a hidden pocket in the ceiling. Griff loves music and has an incredibly sophisticated speaker system, but the wires and speakers, including a giant sub-woofer in the dining room, are all out of view (though not out of ear shot).
In other places, though, the difference between old and new is intentionally stark. The front of the house is a quaint snow white. So the addition at the back – a cedar-clad box – is jet black, bold and unmistakably of the moment. “It was nice to play with that contrast,” Ms. Vokac Taylor says, noting that the back addition has an 11-metre long, built-in bench facing the lawn – perfect for post-party perching on hot summer nights.
“Our friends can’t believe the difference,” Sarah says. “And neither can we. I definitely feel house proud now. We never hesitate to invite people over.”