Kristine Remedios and John Silva, a Toronto couple with two kids, found their ideal property in 2016: a farmhouse on a six-acre lot in Cressy, Ont., near the eastern edge of Prince Edward County. It wasn’t the kind of thing most people would buy, but the couple were in the market for a DIY challenge.
“All the interior details were gone,” Ms. Remedios says. “It was basically a frame with a roof on it.”
It would be a stretch to call it a fixer-upper. Really, it was a ruin, albeit one that could serve as inspiration for whatever they built in its place. Upon acquiring the property, Mr. Silva walked through the wreckage – stepping lightly, and avoiding both the beehive in the walls and the screech owl in the rafters – to get a sense as to how the space was apportioned.
“It had tall windows and small rooms,” he says. “It epitomized rural farmhouse architecture.”
It also embodied a sense of time. In the basement, he found a large hearth and thick fieldstone foundations – signs of the original 19th-century log cabin the house had been built around. Beneath the stairwell were three mysterious names – Marcia, Kurt and Rachel – inscribed on the underside of the treads.
“The house had stages of Prince Edward County history built into it,” he adds.
The couple’s goal was to respect that history without trying too hard to replicate it. They commissioned architect Nova Tayona, whom they’d known from more than a decade ago when she was a patron at Poor John’s, the Parkdale coffee house the couple owned and operated until 2012. (Today, Mr. Silva teaches digital media and photography at a Toronto high school, and Ms. Remedios is the global head of inclusion and diversity at KPMG. They still live part-time in Parkdale.) Their brief to Ms. Tayona was simple.
“We didn’t want a copy of a historical rural home,” Mr. Silva says, “but we wanted something inspired by it.”
Ms. Tayona, a keen observer of vernacular architecture styles, noticed that many Southern Ontario farmhouses come in two pieces. There’s the original home, small and modest, in the back – and then a larger, front-facing component that gets added at a later time when the owners have more resources at their disposal. She decided to play with this two-part design template: the house she drew consists of a tall front volume – three floors topped with a gable – that connects, in an L-shaped configuration, to a single-floor back volume that is low and long like a barn.
In her design, the front door is on the southwest corner of the tall volume. It opens onto a mudroom with both a staircase – leading to bedrooms and a loft space above – and an entrance to an adjacent den. The downstairs’ floor plan pinwheels around the main house, from the mudroom to the den to the dining room to the kitchen, which is also a hinge space connecting to the second volume. This building consists primarily of two living spaces – one sealed off from the outdoors, the other a screened-in porch – beneath a trussed ceiling.
Ms. Tayona also wanted to incorporate modern elements but in a way that respected tradition, which meant avoiding the typical bait-and-switch one sees in contemporary farmhouse design: rustic vernacular on the outside, capacious modernism within. (For an example of this kind of design, Google Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’s L.A. “farmhouse.”)
Instead, she set rooms that flow into one another. They are small and clearly demarcated, as they would be in a traditional farmhouse, but they aren’t partitioned with doors.
“The goal was to create intimate spaces,” Ms. Tayona says, “in a home that still feels open.”
She also opted for smaller punched windows, which frame views onto the road and the sugar maples out back, and expansive horizontal windows, which look northward over farmlands and the nearby barn.
To realize this architectural vision, Mr. Silva and Ms. Remedios did much of the construction themselves, operating from nearby Airbnbs or tents on the property – an experience that was at times maddening.
For instance, Mr. Silva learned the hard way that when putting up siding, there’s a reason most builders use two staples, rather than one, for every piece of strapping. The extra staples seemed wasteful to him until half a wall’s worth of siding separated from the house, undoing a week of work.
Similarly, the couple discovered that once you’ve finished polishing your concrete floor, you’d better cover it, at least until you have a roof overhead. In fall of 2017, leaves fell on the exposed concrete, staining it orange, red, and green. The couple bought bottles of bleach to clean the mess but had no source of water to mix it with. Then, one day, the sky opened up and solved their problems.
“We had a squeegee, a mop and a bucket,” Ms. Remedios says. “It was pouring rain, which was good for us. We cleaned the whole floor and put a tarp over it.”
They took a similarly resourceful approach to materials, finishes and furnishings. Although they had to pull down the original house, they salvaged pine planks for the floors of the new one and hemlock beams for the trusses above the living space. They decked out the house with antique or salvaged lamps, vintage furniture and chunky cast-iron radiators that maintain heat within their thermal mass.
For Ms. Tayona, the appeal of the project ultimately lies in its connection to both modernist and vernacular traditions, which aren’t necessarily so different from one another. The modernists valued the aesthetics of simplicity, believing that clean lines and simple forms conveyed a kind of honesty. For the loyalist settlers of Southern Ontario, however, simplicity was less an aesthetic than a necessity. You built from wood because that’s what you had available. You put up basic gables because they can support snow. You built small because that’s all you could afford to do and then you expanded your property, but only when circumstances permitted it.
“There’s an economy of means within the farmhouse typology,” Ms. Tayona says. “There’s a no-nonsense approach that comes out of the realities of rural life.”
The result is an architecture that, while different from international modernism, shares certain key attributes: clarity, rationality and a preference for function over affectation. To accentuate these themes, Ms. Tayona made the design as streamlined as possible by removing window trim and eavestrough overhangs, and keeping the corner boards slim and subtle.
In the meantime, Ms. Remedios and Mr. Silva continue to shuttle between their Parkdale home and their rural retreat, with the completion of the project leaving them both satisfied and hungry for new challenges. Now, they’re finishing up a restoration of the barn and building a nearby sugar shack.
They also recently met a woman named Marion Goswell, who lived in the original home. Ms. Goswell told them that the names under the stairwell belonged to her sister and two cousins. She added that a previous owner was rumoured to have been a rum runner, transporting barrels of liquor via an underground tunnel to nearby Prinyer’s Cove, where it would have been shipped to the United States. So far, nobody has been able to find the tunnels or even verify that they exist.
“That could be a new summer project for me,” Mr. Silva says.
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