All she wanted was a pool and another bathroom.
That was three years ago. Today, sitting in the slanting, late-evening sun, the pool keeping warm under its solar blanket and an almost fully new home behind her, talk turns to why homeowner Sandra Sears decided to go the whole nine yards. Well, let’s say seven or eight, since she didn’t change the footprint of her modest home in Toronto’s Sunnylea neighbourhood, or add a third storey, or decorate it with keystones and quoins made of Styrofoam.
“We were pretty careful; you wrote a good program,” architect Kyra Clarkson says. “We were careful about three bedrooms for the kids, two bathrooms for them, a master suite … you wanted to open up the first floor, engage with the front yard, engage with the back; we didn’t know for sure we weren’t going to change the footprint, but we figured we’d try to see what we could do within the existing [one].”
Ms. Sears’s old home, which she lived in for a decade, wasn’t an eyesore. It was a quaint, late-1940s home with an extremely pitched roof and little windows, just like all of the other gabled, traditional homes on her street. Problem was, with too many walls creating a warren inside, the paltry amount of sunlight that did make its way inside got a beat down.
“I was tired of living in a grey house,” Ms. Sears says. “I wanted some brightness.”
And she wanted more space: That roof-pitch meant her second floor was ridiculously small. And there was only one bathroom: ask any mom with three children, all on a collision course with puberty, how workable that is.
Where many would see a complete teardown as the only solution, what Ms. Clarkson and builder Collaborative Ventures achieved stands as a lesson on how to be expansive without being greedy, how to respect the established shape of a neighbourhood while updating to modern lines, how to borrow space and light using simple things such as relationships between (very large) windows, and, lastly, how to retain something simple yet valuable such as backyard space. “Do you know how many bouncy-castle parties I’ve had back here?” Ms. Sears asks rhetorically as she pours a round of ale.
It took meticulous planning, of course. After it was decided to save the original foundation, basement and two exterior walls of the house, things were done in stages. First was the demolition – and builder Richard Stark was nice enough to hand Ms. Sears’s twin boys sledgehammers to take a first whack – which enabled the pool folks to bring their equipment in through the middle of the lot since there was no room at the sides. Next, the tiny second floor was expanded into a flat-roofed box, which cantilevers, slightly, over the first floor (a note that the height of the new roof is actually shorter than the old peak).
Then, the first floor was completely rejigged into a space that reads as double its modest 1,000 square feet. Indeed, it’s only from the street, when dining room drapes are drawn and one can look right through the home that its narrowness becomes apparent; stand inside the foyer and there is so much light falling on so many architectural moments, it’s a feast of trompe l’oeil.
One such “trick” is making the sculptural staircase the “knuckle around which everything pivots,” Ms. Clarkson says. Placing it smack dab in the middle of the floor plan allows it to physically divide the kitchen and living room, while, at the same time, the long wooden screen separating the two sets of stairs (the screen travels from second floor to basement and each slat is made from a single piece of hard white oak) and glass walls on either side keep a visual connection between rooms as well as allowing light penetration.
Another trick is where there are walls – and there aren’t many – that have a door in them, as with the ground floor powder room, that door reaches to the ceiling. Also, where there are windows – and there are many – they are custom units that truly reach from floor to ceiling to wall. These moves make ceiling heights feel as if they are much, much higher than they really are, as does hiding the “huge maze of ducts” behind thick walls so bulkheads aren’t necessary, Ms. Clarkson says. Thicker walls also provide deep sills, which evoke a sense of castle-like coziness, something many people find lacking in Modernist dwellings.
Acres of wood help with coziness too: wood faces the custom kitchen cabinets, it’s underfoot, it frames the windows, that were made in Parry Sound, Ont., and it partially clads the exterior.
One element of stark Modernism, perhaps, might be found in the painted steel exterior cladding, but, even here, the warm charcoal tone, the human-planned rhythm, and lapped-like-scales installation most closely recall old slate roofs rather than Corbusier’s “machine for living in.”
No, the only machine on this build was the one called Organization, Ms. Sears says, owner of a staffing company who, before this, had never done a renovation project of this scale: “People warned me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to make all these decisions on the fly.’ Well that never happened to me once … it was all very methodical and I had lots of warning on decisions.”
And because no one warned her that the addition of one little bathroom often turns into a full-blown renovation, she’s got a light-filled, well-planned nest fit for the teenaged years and beyond.
“I see myself being here for quite some time,” she finishes.