Yes, there’s a canoe stored in the backyard. And the basement has custom-designed storage for all sorts of off-road bicycles. Somewhere, tucked away, is the camp stove that architect Rick Galezowski and his wife, Maggie Bennedsen, cooked on as they rode two of those bicycles 27,000 kilometres from Alaska to the tip of South America over 2 1/2 years.
But, quite often, Mr. Galezowski and his young son will pitch a tent on their third-floor deck, where the twinkling lights of the CN Tower far outshine the Big Dipper: “When it’s really hot,” he confirms with a laugh, “we do go camping on the roof.”
“We wanted this to be a little bit tree house and a little bit cabin in the woods,” he says about the third floor of the house he and Ms. Bennedsen designed five years ago in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood. “In the wintertime, when we’re finished in the kitchen, we just shut down the ground floor and get the wood stove going … and it’s just like a real getaway; a friend of mine once said that he had a feeling of ‘urban amnesia’ when he came up here, like he was not quite in the city.”
It is easy to forget Hogtown while sprawled on the couch here: look north and it’s nothing but a Bob Ross scene of happy little trees and sky, since the deck is a half-level up. Look south, and leaves (mostly) obscure the pointy rooftops across the street. After getting a vinyl record spinning on the turntable, look up and it’s either the big room’s cedar ceiling – which releases its delicious scent when warmed by the wood stove – or the skylights that illuminate Mr. Galezowski’s Great Lake Studio headquarters one level down.
Back down on the ground floor and those same photons have continued through the open staircase right down into the kitchen, since everything has been organized around a central light well. “This sectional arrangement of staggered levels continues all the way up,” he explains. “And so all the main living spaces of the house are facing the light well, but also kind of facing each other.” It was, he adds, all about nurturing “a close family life” that constantly connects the house’s inhabitants to nature.
Levels are “staggered” because the lot slopes upward. So, open the front door and enter into the front room, which has been christened “the library,” and after admiring the built-in sofa and ample storage (as built by master cabinet makers Gibson Greenwood Inc.), note that, past the light well, the kitchen is raised up by a few feet.
Note, too, that even down here, it’s impossible not to feel the pull of fresh breezes and birdsong; it was, says the architect, about building “something that would satisfy our enjoyment of the outdoors, and so all the common spaces flow outside into different outdoor environments.” Indeed, the library connects to a lovely front porch, and the rear dining area connects to an enviable patio.
While small in footprint, the back patio performs a sort of villatic trompe l’oeil by being not a deck, but rather a raised walkway around a forestlike bed of rich, dark soil that nourishes low ferns and tall paper birch trees (that weren’t so tall when planted, but boy have they grown!). By simply creating a pathway one must navigate – with points of interest along the way – in order to arrive at one’s final destination of deck chairs and fire bowl, the small backyard seems much bigger … and not all that different than a clearing in the woods.
Of course there are urban touches. Perhaps even urbane ones. Since it’s a dwelling created by two talented architects – Ms. Bennedsen is an associate at Kohn Shnier Architects – and built by Roman Lysiak of Catalyst Design Build, there are no awkward transitions where different materials meet. Drywall corners are crisp and clean. Due to the staggering of levels, there is plenty of Frank Lloyd Wright-style compression-and-release. To keep the eye rested and allow nature to be the real star, the palette is white, black, grey and woodgrain; only artwork, pottery, textiles (most framed and from their time in South America) and books provide colour.
It’s crisp and architectural yet soothing and soft: no easy feat, especially with a relatively tight budget. While numbers from five years ago don’t have much relevance today, the construction cost was budgeted at $500,000 and “it ballooned to about 550,” Mr. Galezowski says with a laugh.
“When we approached our friend Roman about building it we made it clear that this was going to be a budget project,” he continues. “Initially, we talked about him building a shell that we could inhabit and then kind of fit out on our own.”
While a little more than a “shell” was built, to save money the couple oversaw the kitchen design and installation (an IKEA hack), built the roof deck, finished the basement themselves using sturdy plywood for the walls (so bicycles could hang) and nubby carpet (for easy cleaning of mud spatter from dogs or bicycles), and built/landscaped both the front and back yards. And it all looks just as professional as the rest of it.
“It’s always interesting when architects design their own houses,” Mr. Galezowski finishes, “because they’re unencumbered by convention and usually eager to experiment, and often have very specific ideas about what makes a great house.”
It is a great house; and one that’s perfectly tailored to the lifestyle of its outdoorsy owners. Walking from room to room, with greenery always in sight, it’s also extremely easy to forget about the noise, potholes and traffic jams just outside its sun-washed walls.