“Okay, I got it,” said Tom Knezic’s neighbour. “You’re going to live up and build down, and then live down and build up, and then live up and rent down.” And that’s when Mr. Knezic, co-founder of sustainability experts Solares Architecture Inc., knew he had explained the concept correctly.
This was shortly after Mr. Knezic and Christine Lolley – the other co-founder and his wife – had purchased the house, somewhat on a whim, in February, 2021. While they were quite happily ensconced in their current place a few blocks away in the same Roncesvalles neighbourhood, they’d kept their eyes on this one.
“My daughter’s best friend lives right next door,” the affable architect explains. “We were … at a cocktail party, like, three years ago, and we said ‘look at the side yard of this house.’” So, when their realtor called with the news a year later, impulse took over.
Today, that side yard sports a very wide concrete stair down to a cheerful, two-bedroom basement apartment that Mr. Knezic and Ms. Lolley, their 12- and 10-year-old, and Ginger the guinea pig, all call home while a frenzy of construction happens, literally, right over their heads. But, because of “overkill” on soundproofing, things have been kept to a (very) dull roar: “I think it’s really important to throw money and effort at the sound separation because that’s what really drives people crazy.” And, by July of this year, the Knezic-Lolley family would have been driven to madness if, say, they decided to rent the basement to an aspiring tuba player.
On this frigid February morning, however, there are no tubas. Only the sounds of drilling and pipefitting fill Mr. Knezic’s ears as he emerges from his bright basement lair (Ms. Lolley works with the Solares team at the office) to check in on the tradespeople toiling away on floors one, two, and the newly constructed third. With all the framing in place, it’s possible to get a good sense of the amount of space the family will enjoy, and how much natural light will be part of their lives.
It’s also possible, at this stage, to see that the house was originally a much smaller, wood-framed cottage pushed back on the lot and that, at some point in the 1950s, a brick addition on the front pulled the dwelling in line with its neighbours. Which, of course, complicated things during the renovation.
“I was trying to figure this out, because the structure is different,” says Mr. Knezic as he points to the place where the two buildings meet. “And there’re multiple bearing walls … and you could tell that [one of them] was older.”
But that turned out to be a cakewalk compared with the first phase of construction, which had the family “live up” on floors one and two while the workers built down. “There’re all the temporary works, like figuring out how to keep the plumbing working upstairs while you’ve demolished everything [in the basement]; so there [was] a lot of temporary plumbing, a lot of temporary electrical, because we couldn’t just cut all the electrical and throw it out – but a lot of it was so bad that it had to be replaced just to use it temporarily … for a year.”
And, since the family was living in the house, framing the new third floor and new roof (with a dormer to match the others on the street) had to be done in stages: “They didn’t just rip everything off and leave it open; they did it in little pieces and then they had to tarp it all [for weather protection].”
In all, Mr. Knezic says it took 10 months to ready the basement for occupancy when “you could almost have done the whole house in 12.” And cost for the basement alone was in the “low 200,000s.” But there wasn’t much choice when tenants were found to fill their old house right around the same time they took possession of this place. So, as Maya Angelou once said: “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.”
And when it’s all done, each child will abandon their subterranean bunk bed for an equal-sized bedroom, there’ll be plenty of storage space for the family’s ski gear (all are avid skiers), there will be plenty of common spaces all can enjoy, and this super-insulated, grey-water-recycling, all-electric house (the gas line was cut) will require only sips of energy: “There’s more [consumption] in winter of course, but I’ve done triplexes and it’s a couple hundred bucks a month for an electric bill.”
For example, Mr. Knezic points to a second heat pump/water tank installed on the third floor. The logic for this, he says, is that hot air rises and lingers, so this unit will eliminate it by sucking it in to “chew it up and condense it and put it into the hot water, so you’re actually using very little electricity.” The household’s condensing dryer, which also spits out a lot of heat, is positioned nearby so as to kill two birds with one err … heat pump.
While still in its raw form on three of the four floors, it’s interesting to see this project now (this author will likely write about it again when done) and learn about the construction choreography that allowed this lively family to go about their business without being covered in plaster dust.
But would Mr. Knezic recommend this scenario to one of his clients?
“I wouldn’t recommend it right away,” he says flatly. “There would have to be a lot of good reasons, and don’t take it lightly … plan for it right from the beginning. But it [has been] surprisingly comfortable; I don’t feel like we’re even really that put out.
“Okay, sometimes, you know, when there’re people on the scaffoldings I have to tell my kids don’t run underneath,” he finishes with a laugh.