You've seen them.
No, really, you have, because they're everywhere. You just haven't noticed them. A few weeks ago in these pages, Adele Weder wrote about the "Vancouver Special" - low-cost, basic, boxy 1970s-era houses enjoying a renaissance as west-coasters discover their adaptability.
Toronto has something quite similar, but there's no catchy nickname and they're not found in areas of high-concentration like in Vancouver. They are the hundreds of large, boxy, hip roofed, large-windowed infill homes built from the 1950s to, perhaps, the late-1970s in practically every older neighbourhood, usually by immigrant builders in batches of two or three.
Michael McClelland, a founding partner of E.R.A. Architects, has noticed them. So much so that, six years ago, he got together with two friends who were renters like he was - "I'd always put all my money into my business," he explains - to purchase one on Merton Street.
You've heard of Mr. McClelland.
No, really, you have, if you follow heritage architecture, because his firm is everywhere: the Don Valley Brick Works, the Distillery District, the King Edward Hotel, the Don Jail and the Carlu…just to name a few (some with partner firms).
Wait a minute, that Michael McClelland? Shouldn't he be living in Cabbagetown or something?
"I think when people talk about heritage they think of Cabbagetown," he begins. "For me it would be totally retardaire to buy a house there and fix it up - I'd be so reinforcing values that are already there. These buildings," he continues, looking around his living room, "people drive by and say 'Gah, ugly building' and I'm thinking 'Dream building.'"
Victorian homes, although beautiful, are out of most people's financial reach, and buying this triplex was a way to prove to others (as well as to himself) that there is room for more than one dream: "Can you get a building stock that's reasonable, that's good and solid and just isn't appreciated enough?" he asks, rhetorically, thinking of the wide lot, expansive floor plan, ample parking and no-nonsense construction. "It's a bit like how antiques work, where you go and buy the Formica table and no one gets it, and then you say, 'Well, actually, it's really cool'- this is the Formica table of houses," he says with a big laugh.
And, like Formica, the home was inexpensive to purchase. More importantly, only minimal renovation was required to tailor the three units to the lifestyles of the three new owners. How inexpensive? Try $300,000, all in, for each floor: "It's a little bit of an experiment about how you can live cheaply in the city," he offers. "I like to work really hard, then, when I come home, I like to read and relax and I don't want to bring all that home and do house renovations."
And it is a supremely relaxing place, whether Mr. McClelland finds himself practicing classical guitar in the huge master bedroom, spying joggers on the trails of Mount Pleasant Cemetery from his huge deck, trying new recipes in the well-appointed kitchen or stretching out with a book on the Eames lounger in the wide and welcoming living room. Making the three-bedroom, 1,500 sq. ft. flat even cozier are bold wall colours - chartreuse, turquoise, grey and slate blue - based on a series of vintage Australian stamps chosen by an architect friend with a passion for stamp collecting.
Even the journey up to Mr. McClelland's third-floor suite is relaxing. Since the 1959 building was designed as a three-apartment rental at the outset, it benefits from a wide, light-filled, small-office-building-style staircase and a bank of large, light-loving windows to illuminate the way.
What wasn't effortless was the paperwork required to transform the property into a legal condominium, since despite its size it's governed by condominium rules that apply to 30- or 300-unit condominiums: "It's a bit of a pain," he says. "It would be better if there was legislation that allowed you to have mini-condos." Luckily, his purchasing partners just happen to work in the city's planning department, so their expertise, combined with design work handled by Mr. McClelland's firm, smoothed over many of the wrinkles.
Combining the intimacy of a single-family home with the convenience of condo life - yes, maintenance and landscaping are covered by a "tiny" reserve fund - the place feels "a bit more like Montreal than it does Toronto. And everyone has keys to everyone else's apartment, and we have parties and we use everyone's oven."
Celebrating a small slice of architecture that's underutilized and undervalued, Mr. McClelland is celebrating local heritage, in a way, since Toronto has always been a pragmatic place that prides itself on finding housing solutions for the masses (think of the concrete towers of the sixties and seventies that the E.R.A. office is working hard to save with the Tower Renewal Project).
"The thing is," he asks, "can you somehow popularize certain ideas about architecture and make it more acceptable to folks?"
This home proves that you can. But in order to make it the next big renovation craze, Mr. McClelland will have to come up with a name that's catchier than the "Toronto Special."