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In Toronto, the 100-plus construction cranes soaring over the skyline, pulling up condo towers as effortlessly as knee socks, are often used as shorthand to signify the city’s economic vitality and overall building boom.

But, perhaps, an equally important indication of the city’s real estate enrichment is happening much closer to the ground: the spate of new low-rise condos and stacked townhouses.

Over the past few years, boutique developers, innovative architects and savvy real estate agents have been snapping up small infill sites, creating high-design buildings and invigorating corners of the city that until now have been untouched by contemporary architecture. The outcome is no less than the emergence of a uniquely Toronto design aesthetic – and investors and homebuyers seem to be responding with fervour.

The change has been slow in the making. “I’ve been developing boutique buildings since 1995,” says Adam Ochshorn, principal of Curated Properties. “I would say that up until 2007, there was no particular aesthetic. All you had to give people was space.

'These days, people are trending more toward a streamlined aesthetic. They want the latest cars, electronics and smartphones. And they want them in an environment to match.'
Sayf Hassan, Vice-President, Symmetry Developments
Sayf Hassan, Symmetry Developments. Photo by Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail

“Now,” he says “we have to give people more of a magazine-calibre product.” He points to some his recently sold-out projects, such as 455 Dovercourt, 12 stacked townhomes near College and Ossington, where the units started at $650,000 and 1,050 square feet. The interiors were done by Nivek Remas, an offshoot of Yabu Pushelberg, and, with their hardwood embellishments and open-rise stairs, look slicker than Milos Raonic’s immovably gelled hair.

Mr. Ochshorn notes that the shift is being driven by customer preferences, preferences that are being shaped by a greater awareness of the value of design. “Ninety per cent of our customers have been to IDS,” he says. “Ten years ago, no one knew what that was.” (The popular Interior Design Show was started in 1999). “They also see things on Pinterest, and buy international design magazines.”

Origami Lofts by Symmetry Developments. Rendering by Norm Li.

Sayf Hassan, vice-president of Symmetry Developments, agrees that the market is maturing in terms of taste. “These days,” he says, “people are trending more toward a streamlined aesthetic. They want the latest cars, electronics and smartphones. And they want them in an environment to match.”

To Mr. Hassan, this can only mean good things. For too long, in terms of low-rise design, the “bar was so low,” he says, noting the McMansions, bland apartment blocks and pastiche, faux-Victorian townhomes across the GTA. This lack of innovation is indefensible for a developer, according to Mr. Hassan, because “buildings leave an imprint” that can last decades, or even centuries.

It’s especially indefensible as there is a business case to be made for good design.

Linea on Bayview by Symmetry Developments. Photo by Scott Norsworthy.

Mr. Hassan points to his Hive Lofts project, on the Queensway in Etobicoke. The six-storey, 20-unit project was designed by award-winning architect Stephen Teeple. It “commanded a premium” relative to the other developments in the area because of its upmarket features (the unique, slanting structure is clad in striking zinc shroud).

“We work with the prevalent pricing,” explains Mr. Hassan, “so that doesn’t mean a 20-per-cent premium.” And the profit margins on a smaller development tend to slimmer anyway than, say, a 500-unit tower that inherently has better economies of scale. But money isn’t necessarily the only motivator for a developer (seriously). Like many of his clients, Mr. Hassan simply “gravitates toward good architecture.”

His next big project will be a set of 44 stacked townhouses in Scarborough’s Birch Cliff neighbourhood, on a stretch of Gerrard Street East hardly known for its cutting-edge, contemporary design. The project, designed by 5467896 Architecture (a Manitoba-based studio that has an impressive portfolio of low-rise projects in Winnipeg), should launch in early 2015, with 700 sq. ft. units starting in the $400,000s. Although it’s called TreeHouse, the design is actually more like something out of Minecraft – it looks as though it were made of pixilated, digital building blocks.

Treehouse condos, designed by Winnipeg-based 5467896 Architecture.

Sasa Radulovic, a principal at 5467896, echoes Mr. Hassan’s point that the margins on a low-rise building can be tight. “There is no money to hide in a small building,” he says, “every square foot must be accounted for.” But he also says that the financial constraints – as well as all the other constraints typical for a low-rise – such as tight, awkwardly shaped sites and strict planning restrictions – drive innovation.

“It’s part of how we create new experiences, new designs,” says Mr. Radulovic. For TreeHouse, for example, he’s looking for ways to clad the staggered forms in metal so that it both looks good and stays within budget.

For his part, Stephen Teeple thinks that, in a certain way, the strictures are creating a unique-to-Toronto building style. “We have to bring a lot of imagination,” he says. In part to deal with “strict” building guidelines (his Hive Lofts has a steep, 45-degree angle on the back to conform to “angle of plane” restrictions about casting shadows on neighbourhouring buildings) as well as budgets. “Toronto has never spent a fortune on architecture,” says Mr. Teeple. “That’s not an unromantic perception. I think it’s nice … Here, we’re learning to do a lot with a little.”

Hive Lofts, designed by Stephen Teeple.

Paul Johnston, a real estate agent who specializes in high-design, contemporary architecture, also sees the emergence of a unique-to-Toronto style. And he’s excited about it. “Five to seven years ago I was pleading with developers for decidedly modern townhomes,” he says. “There was an apprehension, but now the market has responded.”

Mr. Johnston suggests that the turning point was 2006, with the opening of Jack Diamond’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (another building with tough site conditions and a limited budget). “It was an energizing moment,” explains Mr. Johnston, “to have such a highly visible building, that was undeniably modern, in the bold, black brick.”

Core Modern Homes by Batay-Csorba Architects.

Maybe the Centre helped pave the way for the townhouses that Mr. Johnston is currently selling, such as the clean-lined, sharp looking Core at Bayview and Eglinton. It recently went on sale with prices starting from $1,150,000 for 2,000 square feet (so far one unit out of seven has sold).

“It has a certain angularity in the windows, which I think is rather iconic,” Mr. Johnston says of the project. Moreover, he thinks “it’s hopeful that we’re creating buildings that reflect the sensibilities of the time we live in now” – buildings that look nothing like a Victorian row house or something out of the Georgian era.