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Raw director Roland Rom Colthoff walks by construction at 35 Wabash.

Dave LeBlanc

This year, Raw Design celebrates 10 years of work.

And I’d like to celebrate them. While the lazy writer would thumb through his or her dictionary, pluck an appropriate definition of the word “raw” and list all of the reasons Raw’s architecture conforms, that doesn’t work here. Raw’s architecture, you see, is rather refined. It has good urban manners. It responds to sites rather than lords over them. No generic glass boxes here.

“I’ve always taken the position that the city is a rich mélange of stuff, so no two projects should be the same,” director Roland Rom Colthoff said. “I don’t want to be a Frank Gehry where it’s ‘Oh yeah, yet another one’ … that was the joy of [creating Raw], to tease out what I could do differently in each and every opportunity.”

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On a recent Saturday morning, I toured five projects that go back to 2005, before Raw was a twinkle in Mr. Colthoff’s eye. It was when the soft-spoken, Netherlands-born architect was at his former workplace that he attended a “weird meeting."

“They decided they didn’t want to do any small projects,” he remembered, “and, just the day before, I’d signed up this client, who came to me and said: ‘I really want to do a standout building.’”

Cube Lofts: 799 College St., Neilas Inc.

The Cube Lofts took inspiration from New York's 40 Bond St.

Dave LeBlanc

Finished in 2011 and occupied in 2013, that “standout building” – which took New York’s 40 Bond St. by Herzog & de Meuron as inspiration – would become Cube Lofts. As we stood on the sidewalk admiring its bold shape, we discussed how what was envisioned never made it to bricks-and-mortar. Large units, each with their own ‘frame,’ were to pop in and out and “interlock like a Chinese puzzle” on the façade; a number of factors, such as purchasing the lot next door to widen the building (which ended up with 21 units), contributed to a softening of the concept. No matter, the handsome building won a 2013 Toronto Urban Design Award.

Cube’s on-grade parking area – outfitted with hydraulic car-stackers – is “one of the most gorgeous garages in the city, because you drive down and there’s a garden,” Mr. Colthoff said with a smile. It was that next-door lot, which came with a protected Dutch elm tree, that inspired the design.

109OZ: 109 Ossington Ave., Reserve Properties

109OZ prompted massive outcry at a community consultation when it was announced.

Dave LeBlanc

“The city has all these rules,” Mr. Colthoff said with a sigh as he looked up at 109OZ, a five-minute drive away. “There’re guidelines for tall buildings, there’re guidelines for mid-rise buildings, there’re guidelines for low-rise buildings, now they’re thinking of starting guidelines for mid high-rise buildings.” So, the design was a “protest” of sorts: The façade steps back before it’s required to, walls zig and zag, and balconies are tucked into unexpected places. There are even shocks of yellow to offend the conservative eye.

And speaking of conservative, 109OZ was a bombshell when announced in 2012. At a community meeting, Mr. Colthoff “had 400 people yelling at me … I had this woman in tears about affordable housing.” Ironically, a few years before, when Reserve announced Motif Lofts and Towns just a few blocks south, there wasn’t a peep. That, Mr. Colthoff offered, might be due to a sort of development domino effect: The first project is welcomed as a boon to the neighbourhood, but the second (or third) causes panic. Even at the time, however, The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee called the outcry against the well-mannered, 85-unit mid-rise one of the “oddest” he’d seen.

Dovercourt 455: 455 Dovercourt Rd., Curated Properties

455 Dovercourt is a good example of how to adapt heritage-worthy buildings to today's needs.

Dave LeBlanc

With original steel columns extended, a steel platform was built over the 1958, former City of Toronto office building, “and then we built wood stud townhouses – a greenfield housing development on top – except they were three storeys up,” Mr. Colthoff said.

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Across the street from the storied Matador Club, Dovercourt 455 is a stunning example of how to adapt an unlisted yet heritage-worthy building to meet today’s needs. Original floors continue to be used as office space, and an express elevator services the dozen townhouses on top. The robustness of this building brings to mind another RAW project, Montgomery Square, which sees the restoration of Postal Station K, one of the few federal buildings in the country to bear the insignia of King Edward VIII.

“Now it’s all about ‘Yes, I will keep your taxes low’ instead of ‘Let’s build a city,’” Mr. Colthoff lamented.

Howard Park: 36 Howard Park Ave., Triumph Developments

At Howard Park, Raw had to fit an eight-storey mid-rise into an oddly shaped site.

Dave LeBlanc

It’s a good thing Raw likes a challenge. Here, the developer – new to the game after decades in construction and metalwork – asked the architects to shoehorn an eight-storey mid-rise into an odd, triangular site that was hemmed in by single-family homes on the west and a low-rise building to the north.

Raw’s answer was a double-barrelled building with sharp corners and a deep forecourt. So as not to overwhelm the three-storey homes across the street, the building takes a detour after five storeys and offers up a jumble of cubes set further back, which Triumph’s site suggests was influenced by BIG’s Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen.

“We were trying to be more playful in how we engage the street,” Mr. Colthoff said, admiring the new coffee shops and services that have moved into the ground-level retail spaces.

35 Wabash: 35 Wabash Ave., Zinc Developments

The under-construction project at 35 Wabash will be converted and combined with a phalanx of townhomes.

Dave LeBlanc

Clawfoot bathtub hunters and movie prop buyers will know this Roncesvalles-area address. Once home to Addison’s – a treasure trove of architectural salvage and antique plumbing fixtures – the former warehouse building is going to be converted and companioned with a T-shaped phalanx of four-storey townhomes.

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Here, Mr. Colthoff shows me the precast panels with brick facing that make up most projects these days: “You can’t find bricklayers and then there’s the whole quality-control issue,” he explained. “As opposed to hand-building it onsite in the middle of winter, you do it on the factory floor and you ship it here and erect it.”

While Mr. Colthoff came to Canada at the tender age of 1 – his mother and father couldn’t find housing in 1950s Rotterdam so his electrical engineer father attended a job fair and got in at CGE Peterborough – there is something pragmatic, European and maybe even Scandinavian about Raw’s work. It’s a reassuring architecture that’s more about city-building that showmanship, which, I suppose, is what Canadian architecture has been about for most of its history.

Mr. Colthoff admits that one famous Canadian modernist, Ron Thom, was “the reason I became an architect.” As a teenager, he’d spend time at Thom’s masterwork, Trent University: “I would go and hang out there in the summer … we’d go play squash and say, ‘This is a cool environment.’”

With 40 employees and dozens of projects on the go, such as Daniels Waterfront and Fifty Seven Brock, Raw will continue to build cool environments for decades to come.

On Sept. 23, I’ll be co-hosting Modern TO, a 4½-hour bus tour that will explore modernist architecture and planning in Toronto. We’ll start at 10:30 a.m. at Viljo Revell’s City Hall, and I promise I’ll let you touch the marble-encrusted walls! For tickets, visit:

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