Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Joe and Keira Park had renovations carried out on their home by architect Brian O’Brian.

Scott Norsworthy

It’s not like it’s a specialty; one does not need to be the equivalent of a pediatric surgeon, but for architecture. No, if one understands spatial relationships, light penetration and how to use materials to improve both, a good architect can conjure up the same magic in a Rosedale mansion or East York bungalow.

“It doesn’t really matter the size of the building,” agrees Brian O’Brian, who was born in Montana and is a very good architect indeed. “I’m always looking for these points where you can cut the house, where there’re sectional conditions … to draw in little bits of light, particularly when you can get them to go from roof to first floor.

“And it doesn’t have to cost enormous amounts of money to make holes.”

Story continues below advertisement

The holes Mr. O’Brian made for Joe and Keira Park, for instance, are quite tasteful. Allowing old, gnarly rafters to travel across the ones where light rains down into the formerly dark middle of their cute-as-a-button East York detached makes for a nice contrast with the smooth, creamy-white drywall, and the enormous hole he made on their rear wall has now been plugged up by a cantilevered addition that houses two similarly cute, small bedrooms for the couple’s two young children.

But more on all of that in a minute.

The kitchen got a complete overhaul using Ikea cabinetry.

Scott Norsworthy

The first thing Mr. O’Brian designed for the Parks was even smaller: a backyard scooter shed. It was at the Parks’ 2010 housewarming party that Mr. O’Brian, new to Canada at that point, was allowing his ear to be bent by Mr. Park on how tough it was to house his vintage Vespas (it should be noted here that Mr. O’Brian and his Canadian wife had met the Parks when they took over their Leslieville rental).

“I remember the discussion very well because I was lamenting that everything available at Home Depot just didn’t cut it,” says Mr. Park, smiling as he looks over at Mr. O’Brian. “And then you got your architect’s vision about it.”

And that vision was to design a wide shed with a drop-down front wall that Mr. Park could build himself. The wall-on-a-winch would, with a few cranks, become a work-surface where Mr. Park could restore and tinker with his classic Italian beauties. Not only was this little shed Mr. O’Brian’s first commission in Canada, it made the pages of Canadian Architect magazine for its inventiveness.

When the Park family expanded to four, they called the Works Office of Brian O’Brian.

Scott Norsworthy

Anyhow, with a solid relationship now established, when the Park family expanded to four a few years after that, they called the Works Office of Brian O’Brian to ask that age-old question: “Do we need to move or is there a way to wrestle space out of this old place?” Many friendly chats ensued. Listings in their price range looked like they’d need a renovation. So, they were between a rock and a hard place. If they did renovate, they’d not want to spend more than $200,000. Was that realistic?

“We had no idea what we should expect, we’d never had a reno [done] before,” Ms. Park says.

Story continues below advertisement

Old, gnarly rafters make for a nice contrast with the smooth, creamy-white drywall.

Scott Norsworthy

With a clever plan that avoided excessive foundation work, a good engineer (Kieffer Structural Engineering) and a local, family-run contractor (Tarazhi’s Restoration), and some economical choices with regards to finishes, Mr. O’Brian assured them it could be done. There might even be a room for a little pizzazz, too.

Two years later, and with a whole lot of time spent housebound due to the pandemic, it’s clear all parties are overjoyed with the results. Whereas, before, one would climb the stairs to be confronted by three doors in semi-darkness – their daughter’s tiny room hovered over the stairwell – one is now deposited into a light-filled transition space where plants thrive and little drywall-slots allow light to cascade down. Their daughter’s former bedroom is now an open and airy, cedar-clad, reading nook (it was here that virtual school was held, notes Ms. Park).

It’s a skillful, thoughtful renovation that has completely changed the character of the small East York home.

Scott Norsworthy

Past the now-renovated bathroom, a little hallway leads to two ship’s cabin-like bedrooms, equal in size, where floor-to-ceiling windows reflect light onto warm wood paneling the mimics the size of each window-wall.

Downstairs, although little has changed to the front rooms – they received new white oak flooring, paint, and sexy-black door hardware—the staircase was reworked with new treads and a wall rather than the “visual activity” of handrails and pickets, and the kitchen got a complete overhaul using Ikea cabinetry.

Viewing the new addition from the backyard, one is struck by how much visual interest a cantilever can create (and sheltered private space), and how a few simple design moves can transform what, in an amateur’s hands would’ve been a plain wall, into something with depth, shadow, and complexity. “You take the single volume and then read other volumes within that, or shapes within that,” Mr. O’Brian explains. “So things seem to pop in and out.”

Overall, it’s a skillful, thoughtful renovation that has completely changed the character of one small East York home. And, since it came in under budget, it’s something more folks should consider … especially if they want more architectural beauty in their life, finishes Mr. O’Brian.

Story continues below advertisement

“I really was happy to do this,” he says. “I don’t really care so much about the budget or the scale, it’s really just about are the people interested in doing something. If not, then it’s not worth the time that goes into it. But as soon as they’re interested in rethinking how the space might work, how light works primarily, then I think it gets far more beautiful.”

The first thing Mr. O’Brian designed for the Parks was a backyard scooter shed.

Brian O'Brian

Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies