Not carved in stone
A home built out of concrete blocks and steel is surprisingly warm and agile
When Joanna Sable hired her friend Rudy Bortolamiol to design her home, she concisely laid out her terms. "She said: 'I hate brick. I hate stucco. I hate drywall,'" Mr. Bortolamiol recalls. "'I want something unusual.'"
It was 1992, and Mr. Bortolamiol had just graduated from the architecture program at Carleton University. Here, straight out of the gate, was an opportunity – to have creative control on an original build – that many practitioners don't get until decades into their careers.
Since Mr. Bortolamiol accepted that early job, his life has taken him in unexpected directions. After stints with Toronto's most well-known firms – Brisbin Brook Beynon, Hariri Pontarini – he left the big leagues and became an elementary school teacher, although he continues to do residential commissions on the side.
Sable's North Broadview-area house is among his favourites. He visits often, and last year Ms. Sable brought him back to renovate the kitchen. The house is an adaptable structure sustained by a lifelong friendship.
It is also an unconventional work. Joanna Sable is the daughter of Jared Sable, the late, trailblazing Toronto gallerist who brought some the world's finest abstract, minimalist, and pop artists to exhibit in the city. As with her father – who, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, once said: "If I hear the words 'Drake Hotel' one more time, I'm going to vomit" – Ms. Sable's aesthetic preferences tend toward the rough and the rugged, not the manicured.
When Mr. Bortolamiol suggested constructing her house along the lines of a commercial building, with load-bearing walls made of exposed cinderblock, Ms. Sable immediately acquiesced. Mr. Bortolamiol had a harder time getting contractors on board. "Builders who do factories said it was a house," he recalls. "And builders who do houses said it was a factory."
Most North American homes are constructed around a wood frame, but Mr. Bortolamiol had the house built piece by piece from the foundations on up. The envelope comprises two layers of cinderblock, both un-clad and un-beautified. All three levels – the basement, the downstairs, and the upstairs – have poured concrete floors with embedded steel joists. Beneath the roof, which is made of engineered wood, Mr. Bortolamiol set long I-joists that span from one external wall to the other.
The superstructure stands on its own. "The interiors can be completely blown out," Mr. Bortolamiol says. "You can reconfigure the home as life changes." The building, with its hard shell, may seem inflexible, but inside it's astoundingly agile.
It's surprising in other ways, too. The front façade, for instance, appears foreboding, with its two austere rectangular forms, small square windows, and raw cedar, which has weathered to a flinty grey. The shape calls to mind the late-career work of Adolf Loos, an early master of stern, functional modernism. Move past the front door, however, and the main space – an 800-sqaure-foot kitchen-living area – is unexpectedly homey. It's definitely not hygge, but it's well lit, thanks to generous back windows and a skylight above the kitchen.
Sable's eclectic decor – documentary photographs, surreal mixed-media works, and vintage furniture – further individualizes the space. Personal touches are what give a home its warmth. I've been in many streamlined interiors, the kind that have soft wood and delicate glass tabletops; some felt a thousand times colder than this one.
Concrete itself is an unexpectedly warm material. Literally: it sequesters heat by day and releases it slowly. "You think of it as cold because it's grey," Ms. Sable says. "Actually, marble and tile are way colder." It's also more versatile than people give it credit for, and it has the capacity to be either shiny or matte. The polished floors have a naturally reflective finish, but the cinderblock walls absorb light, making them, in Ms. Sable's opinion, ideal for the display of art. When you live with concrete, you learn to appreciate its subtleties.
The same is true of raw steel, another material that has its own strange charm. A steel stairwell bisects Ms. Sable's living area. It connects with an upstairs catwalk, which leads to the children's – now guest – bedrooms at the front side of the home and a 450-sqaure-foot master bedroom at the back. The catwalk is both discreet (it doesn't interfere with light flow from the ceiling) and conceptually rich. "I thought it was a nice gesture to express the connection between parent and kids," Mr. Bortolamiol says.
Ms. Sable requested that the steel on the stairs be left unfinished, although the workers who installed it disobeyed her orders. "The guys put a clear coat on the railings," says Ms. Sable, "and I lost my mind at them." The rest of the structure remained untouched and continues to patina, giving it a continuing life.
Ultimately, though, the life of a house depends on the person who inhabits it. In 2016, Ms. Sable brought Mr. Bortolamiol back to redo her kitchen because her needs had changed. A decades-long career as a chef had been rough on her knees – and on her kitchen. The space had become a mess of warped wood, chipped tile, and rutted butcher block. "I beat the crap out of it," she says.
Mr. Bortolamiol kept the shape – a corridor between a counter and island – but made it easier to work in. Instead of upper and lower shelving, he opted for lowers only. The countertops, formerly made of oak, are now stainless steel, the kitchen being the one place where oxidized metal never belongs. And there's a dramatic 15-foot-long island clad not in granite, as with the original, but rather in Corian, a non-porous material that can be buffed out when cut or scratched. The piece is brand new, but it seems bulky and permanent, like millwork. Conceptually, therefore, it's of a piece with the home: a seemingly impassive structure that's surprisingly changeable.
This dexterity will increase the resale value, although neither Ms. Sable nor Mr. Bortolamiol are overly bothered by such considerations. Like others in his field, Mr. Bortolamiol believes that Toronto's aggressive market is often at odds with good design. Most investors aren't concerned with innovation; they want homes that are bland and saleable. Still, a buyer who falls for the house and keys into its subtle beauty will find, as Ms. Sable did, that it's an amiable life-long companion.
"Plus, if it came down to it," says Mr. Bortolamiol, "I think it would be easy enough to stucco a place like this." Ms. Sable gasps. "Rudy, don't say that."