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Several million new immigrants from across Canada and the world are expected to arrive in Toronto over the next 20 years. Where are we going to put them all?

We can dispatch them to suburbia, condemning vast tracts of Ontario farmland to burial under relentless sprawl. This is not something the present-day Ontario government, or any environmentally right-minded person, wants to see.

We can stack them in tall apartment buildings at the heart of existing population centres. Such intensification could work out well for both newcomers and old-timers, if the towers are designed and constructed to high, exacting standards, and the proper attention is given to the human consequences of increased density.

I'm thinking here of transportation and pedestrian networks, parks and recreation centres, shops and services, schools and so on - everything, in other words, that's necessary to keep the new tall buildings from becoming high-rise ghettoes or islands of loneliness.

And there's one more thing we can do to accommodate our new neighbours: increase the downtown housing stock by freeing up the city's laneways and other orphaned places for living.

Given the right kind of architectural ingenuity, and flexibility on the part of city officialdom, alleys across Toronto could be peopled with compact residential projects. But entirely new construction is only part of what's possible. Already, many of our laneways are dotted with little industrial buildings - former dairies, carpenters' shops, metal-working establishments and the like - that could be, and occasionally have been, overhauled and transformed into comfortable dwellings. (I know it's possible because I live in a former tool-and-die factory in the west end.) Living on the city's backside, of course, is not for everyone. You don't get a rear garden at ground-level, or a welcoming porch out front. Laneways are hard places, and usually unkempt. They don't get plowed out by the city after a snowstorm. But despite all the negatives, the alley can, and often does - in my situation, certainly does - provide happy refuge from the buzz and rush of the big city.

Last week, I visited a newly reconstructed Victorian blacksmith's shop in Toronto's Summerhill neighbourhood that, like my place, offers the unique pleasures of life in a laneway. And it also shows what happens when sound architectural thinking makes a run into one of the unlikeliest nooks in the city. Gutted and transformed by Margaret Graham and Andre D'Elia, principals in Superkül Inc., the rugged old building is a small masterpiece of intensive urban infill and uplift.

The clients, a psychiatrist and an artist, wanted to downsize from their 3,000-square-foot house nearby, and so, in 2006, they bought the old shed with the intention of converting it into a single-family home.

What Ms. Graham and Mr. D'Elia gave the couple was downsizing with a vengeance: 900 square feet of livable space, stacked up among light wells and a staircase like pieces of a Chinese puzzle. There was no way to build outward: The structure sits on the property line on three sides, and there are only inches of leeway on the fourth.

Superkül's solution to the problem of carving an adequate home out of the shed - "the making of living space in zero-tolerance conditions," they call their project - was to build upward, and very carefully fit the interior elements together into a tight, unified whole.

The rooms in the house are small, and there are only four of them. Entering the building, the visitor finds the living room off to the left, the kitchen-dining area to the right. On the second level are two more little rooms, one the couple's bedroom, the other destined to become a study (complete with a couch acquired from another student of the mind) for the psychiatrist.

But so bald a description of the house's insides could make the place sound crowded and dark. It is anything but. Natural light, falling down from high skylights at the top of the light wells, softly, luxuriously illuminates almost every cranny of the spaciously arranged interior.

On the second level, the mass of the house is penetrated by a pleasant little courtyard that gives access, by way of an external stair, to the roof decks that crown the building. Though densely composed, Superkül's building is a delightfully porous fabric of light and shadow, openings and closings, that works beautifully in its secluded laneway setting.

In transfiguring the old shop into a home, however, the architects have been careful to keep intact the toughness and back-alley unrespectability of the original's exterior.

The handsome cladding on two facades is made of rusty steel panels, some rescued from the skin of the shed, others new.

The other ground-level faces are finished in plywood, painted matte black. The result isn't even slightly cozy.

It's a no-nonsense design for a no-nonsense spot, and an excellent instance of pioneering in the city's laneways.

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