Bumping into each other, turning sideways to pass, and stooping under the beam that ran across their living room ceiling was a way of life for Jim and Darlene Lee for 16 years.
Their family of four was close -- too close -- and they realized this year that it was time to put into action their plan to supersize their 800-square-foot bungalow.
Like thousands of other Toronto bungalow owners stoking the exponential trend to "top up" these cute but increasingly obsolete homes, the Lees never considered a move to one of the more spacious homes in the suburbs.
"You see big homes advertised in Whitby but we don't want to live in Whitby. . . . We like being downtown," Mr. Lee says.
With their rear addition and top-up, the Lees and their sons Tyler, 12, and David, 10, have three times more space, a suburban-style open-concept layout, and are learning not to move around the house in a clump like Little League hockey players.
They like to stand in the second-storey windows and look over their Bayview and Davisville neighbourhood. "We used to look up at everybody and now we look down," Mr. Lee says with a smile.
Ten years ago, Scott Morris Architects predicted the top-up trend and sent out 60,000 postcards in the cookie-cutter neighbourhoods built in Toronto's then-boroughs between the two world wars and again in the 1950s. The architects' slogan was "move up, not out."
They attracted a lot of clients that way, but one of the firm's architects, Paul Dowsett, confesses to being puzzled by the reluctance of many people to consult an architect when making such a radical change to their homes.
That's not to mention the effect the renovation might have on their street.
"I've had ex-clients come to me sheepishly and say 'our builder said he'd just design it for us and we didn't want to bother you,' " he says. "Now they're repenting at their leisure."
Builders don't always understand the implications of going from a two-dimensional drawing to three-dimensional reality, and they're not trained in blending a new structure into the streetscape, he adds.
"Most builders are good at the tangibles, not the intangibles. You end up with homes looking like they don't fit."
Alan Chattoe is more blunt. "It's kind of ugly in some cases," says the Rona Lansing salesman who works with scores of builders who are thriving on the top-up trend, both for clients and for themselves as investors.
"There's no consistency: The city doesn't require it. So you do get the Tudor, the stone, the vinyl . . ."
The top-up market has become so competitive that builders are "stepping on each other's feet because the stock is running out," Mr. Chattoe says.
The City of Toronto issued 250 top-up permits in 2003, 325 in 2004 and 345 by early December of last year.
You only have to drive up and down the streets of East York between O'Connor Drive and Mortimer Avenue to see the effects.
Here, every third or fourth house has been topped up by a different builder or do-it-yourselfer in a different style, leaving a lumpy streetscape as scruffy as a row of mongrel dogs.
Second storeys are boxy or gabled, tall or short, clad in stucco, aluminum, wood, vinyl, angel-stone, or whatever suits the whim and the budget of the owner. You can often see where the two halves have been joined, as no attempt was made to blend the top and bottom.
The Lees take pride in having come up with their own design without the aid of an architect. In fact, they went all the way to the other extreme -- hiring a building company that prefabricates whole sections of houses in a factory.
"Architects do have expertise in blending the new with the old, and sometimes the homeowner does it himself and picks the cheapest thing, like aluminum above brick," Ms. Lee concedes. "But we knew what we wanted. . . . I'd clipped style and home magazines for 16 years."
What the Lees wanted was pretty much what Mr. Dowsett says every topper-upper wants: a grand hallway with an impressive staircase, an open-plan living/dining/kitchen area, a master bedroom with an en suite bathroom and walk-in closets, and a couple of other bedrooms -- just like a home in a subdivision in Brampton.
And they didn't want much stress or upheaval, so they used Modular Home Additions, a company that has systematized the building process to such an extent that it can place a second storey on a decapitated bungalow in a matter of days.
During two weeks in May, the old roof was removed, the first-storey walls extended, and the full exterior walls and roof of the top-up were put in place.
The Lees hired their own trades people to do everything else. The interior work is not finished yet. The whole renovation -- which increased the space to 2,200 from 800 finished square feet -- will cost them about $280,000.
The Lees are happy with the result, and so are their neighbours, as far as they know.
But Mr. Dowsett says it's a rare homeowner who can pull off a successful second-storey addition without an architect's expertise -- and he points out that the cost differential is only between 3 and 5 per cent.
The difference is in the fee charged by an architect to do the drawings, but the vast bulk of the cost is in the permit process and in materials, he says. Bungalow top-ups start at $250,000 and go up from there.
"In my view, you cannot afford not to consult an architect when you're spending that kind of money," he says.
"[Architects]are trained to consider context, neighbourhood and lifestyle, not just the physical aspects of the site -- the tangibles and the intangibles. It's when those two come together that the magic happens."