Skip to main content

Homeowner Adriana Lima, influenced by the homes she loved in her native Brazil, fashioned her house with the help of designer Michael Hatch. Unabashedly modern, the home is filed with unconventional textures and materials used in non-traditional ways.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

As Adriana Lima prepares to return to her native Brazil, she is already imagining the house she might some day design for her family in the hills of Sao Paulo.

In Toronto, Ms. Lima can scarcely believe she is leaving the modernist house of wood and glass that she envisioned for years and completed only 10 months ago.

The departure is especially wrenching for her because she not only designed the house herself, she pursued her ideal with unparalleled tenacity, say those who know her best.

Her spirited approach is all the more remarkable given that Ms. Lima has lived most of her life in Brazil, confesses to a lack of fluency in building-trade jargon and - before she became a mother of three children - spent her early years training as a nutritionist. Still, she has long harboured dreams of becoming an architect or designer.

"I feel really happy when I'm covered in dust and telling the contractor what to do," she says. "You really have to be confident about what you want. If you're a bit insecure, they won't agree to do it."

The modern house that Adriana and Felipe Lima built stands out in the Cricket Club neighbourhood of north Toronto. The couple had purchased one of the area's traditional houses when they moved to the city from New Jersey.

But the family of five needed to expand. They consulted a builder, who advised them that renovating the existing house would cost just as much as tearing it down and starting anew.

Once the Limas considered the money, time, approval processes and upheaval involved in each choice, they decided to rebuild. "If I had to wait, I decided I would build the house I really wanted," Ms. Lima says.

The house she really wanted would turn out to be contemporary, open, warm and reminiscent of the houses she knew while growing up in South America. It would be adorned with unconventional textures and enlivened with materials used in non-traditional ways.

The tradesmen balked when Ms. Lima said she wanted hardwood to go on the ceiling. The construction of the floating metal staircase was a study in itself and required the expertise of an artisan from Argentina. She found a source for a Brazilian hardwood called Cumaru.

"Other people put limestone on the floor. I decided to use it on the walls," she says, gesturing toward the honey-toned living and dining room.

Ms. Lima's partner in the effort was designer Michael Hatch, who rendered what she refers to as her "crazy ideas" in architectural plans. "For projects like this to happen, you have to have a brave owner," Mr. Hatch says. "Adriana was a brave owner."

Ms. Lima felt trepidation about building a large and bracingly modern house in an established area of smaller, mid-century bungalows and Cape Cod-style houses. Even the newly built houses on the street tend to pay homage to the past.

"In Brazil, we like to follow what we see in Europe. We're a little bit more modern."

When the time came to list the property for sale last month, Ms. Lima was prepared to wait a long time for a buyer of the 4,000-square-foot house with an asking price of $2.899-million.

Her real-estate agent, Paul Johnston of Right at Home Realty, was surprised when the property sold in two days - before he had a chance to hold the scheduled open house.

But Mr. Johnston says the thirst for houses that are unapologetically modern has grown immeasurably in Toronto in recent years. He credits an increasing exposure to international tastes in architecture and style as people travel and stay in W Hotels, for example, or pass through a well-designed airport lounge.

In Toronto, meanwhile, even new houses tend to be traditional. Until now, building a modern house required a willingness to stand out, he says, and often those with the means and inclination to do so were architects or designers.

More and more, he hears from buyers in every price bracket who want to live close to downtown, but in a contemporary dwelling. "Many people have been quite dismayed that a new home was not modern but almost a pastiche of an earlier era," Mr. Johnston says. "The architecture of our time is not reflected in the building of our time."

He says many people share Ms. Lima's dream of designing the house they desire, but few can achieve it.

Ms. Lima has an edge; she grew up surrounded by a family of designers and architects.

In her own house, she insisted on spare and unembellished transitions between walls and floor, which is an element she saw in the houses designed by her uncle, architect Fernando Peixoto of Brazil. She wanted the graphic appearance of a staircase that appears to be suspended in space. The open plan wouldn't allow for any duct work, so she had two heating and cooling systems installed on separate floors.

On the exterior, Ms. Lima grappled over the construction of the soffits with the roofing contractors, who told her the wood trusses would be rotted in a week if she had her way. In the end, Mr. Hatch helped to her to bridge the gap with custom-made soffits that provided the practicality needed to withstand the Canadian elements combined with the appearance that softer climates allow.

"I drove my builders crazy," Ms. Lima admits.

Finally, just as the house was nearing completion last summer, Mr. Lima received a job offer in Brazil and the couple decided to return to their home country. Ms. Lima says she looks forward to the possibility of building a house there some day, and she hopes her experience in renovating and building will allow her to establish a design business of her own.

She is excited about the prospect, but, meanwhile, she feels wistful about leaving behind the house that lived so vividly in her imagination.

"I thought we would be here forever."