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A home in Toronto's East Chinatown designed by architects Winda Lau and Andrea Yeatman of Studio Lau.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

At first glance, the diminutive red house in Toronto’s East Chinatown appeared dark and cramped and in need of TLC.

But architects Winda Lau and Andrea Yeatman of Studio Lau felt a surge of exhilaration when they walked through the door.

“We were excited about the transformation we could do,” Ms. Lau says.

Their next task was to inspire the same enthusiasm in the new owners.

The clients were a young couple who took over the two-storey home near Dundas Street East and Broadview Avenue from the husband’s family.

The young man’s grandmother had purchased the sturdy detached house in 1970 and he had fond memories of spending time with her in the east end neighbourhood close to Riverdale Park.

When his grandmother moved to new accommodations, the young man’s relatives urged him to keep the home in the family.

His wife was a little more hesitant to give up their comfortable, west-end condo for an older house that often felt chilly and dark.

But her husband’s nostalgia for visiting local shops with his grandmother and careering down the toboggan run at Riverdale Park won her over. They both liked the renewal coming to the area, with an A&W and cool, independent coffee shops opening up between the traditional Chinese grocery stores.

Once the couple committed to the move, they thought about tearing down the house and starting over, or topping it up with a third floor, but Ms. Lau and Ms Yeatman saw potential in the existing structure.

The architects pointed out that expanding at the rear would be less costly than the expense of building up.

“That’s part of the fun – it’s a bit like a puzzle,” Ms. Lau says of figuring out the best use of space within the constraints of a budget.

They came up with a design for a modern rear addition that added bright and modern spaces while preserving some elements of the original home.

“We wanted to really open up the space,” Ms. Yeatman says of the new plan, which replaces an interior of small compartments.

White oak accents add warmth to the entrance foyer.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

The house is now approximately 2,200 square feet above ground, which is the maximum the zoning would allow without getting special planning permission, the architects say. By staying within the regulations, the homeowners didn’t face long delays waiting for approvals.

Today the front door opens to an intimate foyer that the architects created with the use of white oak accents that define the space while adding warmth and texture.

The existing staircase was torn down and rebuilt with one step that wraps around to become a long bench – painted black to add interest.

A step from the new staircase wraps around to act as a bench.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

The architects brought in a structural engineer to hide a column in the combined closet and dividing wall between the foyer and the living room. That way they could tear out the support walls that compartmentalized the interior and create a modern, open plan.

Beyond the foyer, the space suddenly opens up to a larger area for lounging, with a kitchen and dining area at the rear.

The architects drew up a few different configurations, they say, that could have put the dining area in the middle of the house, for example, and a family room at the rear. In the end, the couple opted for an expanded living area that gives them room for a large sectional sofa and space to lounge in front of the television.

By hiding a support column, walls were removed to create a more open plan.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

The kitchen is at the rear, with a dining area beside the sliding glass doors that open to the garden.

The grandmother’s living room at the front of the house is still there, with the original window opening. Removing the trim from the window made it look bigger, and the architects reconfigured it so that there’s a large expanse of glass and a smaller, operable portion beside it.

They added a deep sill to bring in more light and provide a place for plants.

The original front living room was retained and updated.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

The fireplace has been transformed with paint in a deep shade of charcoal and a thin oak mantle.

“When there are nice old elements in a house we like to keep them,” Ms. Lau says. “When we do our interventions, we like them to be contemporary.”

An alcove – painted in dramatic black – leads to a powder room tucked in beside the foyer.

A dramatic powder room is tucked away beside the foyer.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

The expansive new kitchen gives the couple much more space than they had in their condo. One homeowner likes to bake and now has plenty of space to lay out trays of pastries on the large island.

Extra-deep sinks accommodate the largest pots and pans.

The architects provided lots of storage space and built-ins so that small appliances can remain hidden and the kitchen stays uncluttered.

Ms. Lau and Ms. Yeatman had the island painted in a deep, rich blue that provides contrast with the white cabinets. They also chose the light fixtures above the island and throughout the main floor.

The kitchen island was painted a deep blue to contrast with the cabinets.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

“That’s part of our holistic approach,” Ms. Lau says. “We think every element that’s attached to the house is part of it.”

Upstairs, the architects removed remnants of a tenant’s kitchen and bathroom to return the dwelling to a single-family home.

A skylight above the hallway brings light into the centre of the house.

There are two bedrooms at the front of the house, one in the centre and a large master suite at the rear.

A bedroom in the rear addition has a window seat that looks over the backyard.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

In the new addition, the architects created a large bedroom with built-in closets and a picture window with a built-in oak window seat overlooking the backyard.

The ensuite master bath provides luxurious touches such as heated floors, a stand-alone tub and a walk-in shower.

The architects created a wet area which places the tub and shower behind a glass partition at the back. The dry area at the front has a vanity with double sinks and wood veneer.

The tub and shower area in the master suite bathroom are separated by a glass partition.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

The mix of black-and-white tiles in a geometric pattern is timeless, Ms. Lau says.

“I think the black tub is really striking.”

Outside, the architects gave the exterior a more calm and contemporary look. The brick had already been painted red so they painted over that and used black metal window frames and siding to complement the soft ecru.

The basement is also newly excavated so the couple can work on finishing it over time.

The architects had a few challenges to overcome along the way, they say, because the site is so confined and parking is scarce on the one-way street. The only access to the backyard is through a narrow walkway that runs alongside the house, so using large equipment to dig out the basement was not an option.

Curious neighbours who remember the grandmother often dropped by to check on the progress.

Gradually problems were overcome and, after about one year of construction, the house was move-in ready.

The couple will work on landscaping as the weather improves. They also plan to have lots of family gatherings.

The clan is amazed at the transformation, the couple says, and family members enjoy coming over to visit. But the shock hasn’t completely worn off: One or two members of the older generation are taking a little time to get used to how modern the cherished red house has become.

Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

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