Most architects don’t aspire to careers doing in-fill housing projects. The typical tear-down and rebuild often comes with a small lot and a long list of zoning restrictions, which in turn can make for un-sexy, faux-historical homes or, worse, long fights with adjustment committees and change-resistant neighbours. This is especially true compared with larger, more glamorous pursuits such as art galleries, office buildings and university campuses.
Since starting his firm, RZLBD, nearly ten years ago, though, Toronto-based architect Reza Aliabadi has shown that modest can also be meaningful, inventive and impactful. “My motto is ‘bring it on,’ ” Mr. Aliabadi says. “Some of the challenges involved with in-fill – tight budgets, narrow sites – might make the journey more unpredictable. But they also make the design process more exciting for me.”
That excitement is embodied in Mr. Aliabadi’s newest home, the latest in a series of more than a dozen others. It replaces a derelict, century-old structure with “no heritage value and which was about to fall down,” according to Mr. Aliabadi. The new pile is on a suburban street in south Scarborough that is otherwise lined with tiny, postwar bungalows, none of which bring the word ‘modern’ to mind, just about all of which are clad in basic brown brick, ersatz stone siding or both.
Mr. Aliabadi’s design is conspicuously different – starting at the curbside. Instead of the ubiquitous tarmac, the driveway is composed of a water-permeable, grass-covered paving stone that blends seamlessly with the surrounding, tidy lawns. The vibrant green welcome strip almost feels too pretty to drive on and tucks under the home’s two upper levels, which are clad in wood slats and cantilever out toward the street. To create a floating effect, the ground floor is set back and painted a cool, receding grey that doesn’t distract from the two floors projecting above.
While the place looks nothing like the neighours', Mr. Aliabadi says he believes that’s a good thing. “Sometimes you are in a very delicate context,” Mr. Aliabadi says, “with some intricate buildings that you want to alignment with. But here, that was not the case.” Instead, as with several of the other sites he’s worked with, he hopes his creation acts as a “positive virus,” inspiring new, similar in-fill projects to invigorate the otherwise prosaic environs.
Importantly, despite the unusual appearance, “the house is built 100 per cent respecting the Scarborough zoning bylaws,” Mr. Aliabadi says. Even where it seems otherwise. From the front, the house looks flat-roofed – something prohibited for three-storey homes in the area. But the home actually has a roof that slopes ever-so-slightly in both the front and the back, doing so as gently as possible to preserve the clean-lined look. Cleverly, Mr. Aliabadi minimized the roof’s appearance by setting part of it back behind a terrace off the master suite, turning a potential aesthetic encumbrance into an outdoor amenity.
Adhering to regulations was a request of homeowner Shujan Islam, an IT consultant who was eager to avoid any time-sucking, costly hassles with Toronto’s committee of adjustments. “I didn’t want a long battle,” Mr. Islam says, adding that he also desired a standout aesthetic. “I love contemporary design. I wanted something artful, something beautiful.”
“Shujan basically wanted everything,” Mr. Aliabadi says, including a long list of programming – three bedrooms (if Mr. Islam ever has kids), a home office, a massive master bedroom and ensuite (all spa-like, to unwind from busy work days). He also wanted a sculptural, multilevel light-well that would draw sun from the third story down into the basement. “Natural light makes a huge difference,” Mr. Islam says. “It makes every space more humane.”
Achieving such a wish list required a rigorous approach. At the outset of the design, Mr. Aliabadi drew out the maximum footprint allowable under the bylaws – 2,500-square-feet, tight given the demands – then, as though he were fitting together a Jenga stack, started to piece together the various parts. To ensure harmony, he tried as much as possible to only draw out square and symmetrical rooms – “that way there are no jagged, awkward corners,” Mr. Aliabadi says.
Maintaining such geometric consistency helped imbue a pleasant feeling in the interiors, something that’s evident on entering the house. The place is relatively narrow, but because the ground-floor living spaces – the combined kitchen, dining and sitting areas – are proportionally square, they have a roominess that would be hard to imagine if they were laid out more like bowling alleys (long, skinny) than like boxes (open, even).
Likewise, on the second level, the would-be kids’ rooms aren’t large (more downtown condo than expansive suburb), but they have a similar capaciousness. It helps that each one has a little skylight, adding sun in concert with the large windows that face onto the street.
Likewise, a much larger skylight sits above the home’s central atrium, flooding the home with so much brightness that even on an overcast day, with all the LED pot lights turned off, all the adjacent spaces flood with warmth. Subtle slats near the ground-floor kitchen help carry the rays down into the surprisingly airy basement (which is kitted out with both a rec room for any future children, and a wine cellar for future parents). It also infuses serenity into the third-floor master bedroom.
The escape takes up the entire floor, but, bisected by the atrium, is divided almost exactly in two with the sleeping space on one side, and the marble-swathed ensuite and outdoor terrace on the other. When darkness or privacy is required, sliding screens conceal the skylight. But when open, the adjacent spaces hum with refreshing, reinvigorating energy. It’s like being at a resort somewhere in the sun drenched-south, right in the middle of Scarborough.
“A lot of people only care about the tangible when building a house,” Mr. Aliabadi says. “The resale value, maximizing the square footage, the bylaws.” All of which is essential to consider, he says. “But you also have to remember to make something special, too. I might only be contributing a pixel to the urban fabric. But I still feel responsible to make that pixel worthwhile, to make that pixel a positive contribution to the surroundings, and for the people living in it.”
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