As recently as June, 2019, Google street view shows the comically small house that Katie Bryant, her husband, and their children, called home. While attractive, the wooden, doll-like house was just 12 feet wide on the 18 foot wide lot; also, it was pushed so far back, only a massive addition would’ve brought it in line with its neighbours and, more importantly, afforded this active family of four the space required to thrive and grow.
“I’m an archaeologist,” Ms. Bryant says as she swirls a glass of red over her kitchen island, “so I went to the [Toronto] archives and researched the house and it was 1888. … I think it predated the others.”
“It was quite a sweet-looking house,” her architect, Kyra Clarkson, says with a smile.
Sweet indeed, especially when the Bryants were newly married and childless in 2006. But, as the Bryants began to build a life in the Little Italy neighbourhood, challenges emerged as musician-hobbyist hubby (a scientist by day) tried to shoehorn a soundproofed band rehearsal room/recording studio in the low-ceilinged basement (which he dubbed LoHeadroom Studios), the second of two children came along – the house had no closets and one bathroom – and gaps in the old windows began to widen.
“We had a sentimental attachment to it,” Ms. Bryant says. “But I think it was either you pay all the land transfer taxes or real estate fees [to move] or [you pay] an architect.”
So, they decided to hire Ms. Clarkson to come up with feasibility studies, since they’d met during a tour of one of her projects during Doors Open Toronto and liked what they saw. Graft something onto the front of the old house and create a sort of central courtyard/entryway in the middle? Tear down and start fresh? Or give up on their lot and try to find something else in a neighbourhood where houses routinely sell for two million or more?
Because of Toronto’s hot market, it actually made financial sense to stay put and build new.
And because Kyra Clarkson isn’t just any old architect, not only did the couple tick off all of their boxes, they got a handsome house that fits into the existing streetscape. Standing no taller than the bay-and-gables nearby, the now wider, peaked building is clad in a dark blue, shiplapped wood that is punctuated by a simple made-in-Denmark door. If passersby stop to examine the roofline, they’ll note that eavestroughs are hidden from view, which produces a crisp, and very sexy, silhouette.
Standing in the foyer, invited guests will be treated to an uninterrupted view to the tall sliding glass doors at the back, and a creamy-white wonderland of surfaces and finishes. The wooden stair, the kitchen’s wood cabinets, a vivid blue-green-gold backsplash and the couple’s antique dining set and hutch provide splashes of colour. Oh, as do plants … lots and lots of them.
“We moved the kitchen, which used to be at the back of your house, into the middle so that your dining could expand out into dining outdoors and take advantage of the west light,” Ms. Clarkson says, “and benefit the plants because you’re great with plants.”
And about that stair: while contemporary in execution, it features traditional pickets rather than fingerprint-hungry sheets of glass. Climb up during the day, and a bank of skylights illuminates your path; in summer, hit the remote to open one for instant hot air exhaust.
Up here, behind tall doors, one will find a bedroom for each girl (one gets a commanding view of the CN Tower and skyline), their bathroom, the laundry pair, and the primary bedroom and ensuite. Of note in this room is the full wall, built-in bookcase – complete with ladder – and cozy window seat to curl into once the right tome is chosen.
“Take advantage of this ceiling space,” Ms. Clarkson says simply. “Build in some closets, and you can see they’re lockable so that you can travel or rent [the house] out.”
And there’s the rub. How does one build a house for $1.4-million on two public servant’s salaries and not go broke in the process?
All along, the Bryants planned for (and got) a bachelor-apartment-sized income suite in the basement to offset payments to their construction loan (currently tenanted by a student). The other parts of the basement, a family rec room and hubby’s new recording/rehearsal studio (cheekily dubbed MoHeadroom Studios) also allows for income-generation. During travel-heavy summers, perhaps the family could live down there when in town and rent the top two floors out. Or, once their journalism student tenant leaves, perhaps they could rent the entire basement to a musician or a music student, who would pay more and/or help set up recording sessions for other musicians. And, since there is room on the lot for an eventual laneway suite, the world is their oyster.
Speaking of income-generation, while not installed yet the peaked roof has been readied for photovoltaic panels. And, since the mechanical room is just under that roof – it occupies the space over the flat-roofed corridor – it will be easy to wire up when the time comes.
It’s a lot of flexibility for 1,700-square-foot house, plus basement. No, it’s not an Airbn-behemoth, nor was it ever intended to be. It is, however, a well-designed, thoughtful take on how to make housing work in an expensive city by a skillful architect – Google Ms. Clarkson’s “modernest” work for proof – and a builder, The Fifth Wall, who got it right.
“I don’t think we did anything really high end,” Ms. Bryant finishes. “We wanted stuff that would last.”