One can blend fully. One can stand out. Or one can try to walk a line between the two. A line? No, a tightrope, really, since the winds of ego and the gravity of tradition almost always combine to disrupt one’s balance.
Architects designing for older city neighbourhoods walk that tightrope every time. And many fall because of ego, creating neighbourhoods that are irreparably damaged in the process. It’s one thing to make a bizarre-angle-and-slit-window statement at the corner of Queen’s Park and Bloor Street West, but quite another to do it in a quiet, residential enclave with big trees shading street hockey nets.
Thank goodness architects Gina Schafrick and Colin Grant – who work under the name “these architects inc.” – know how to walk the line. Elegantly, even, as a recent addition to the North Toronto home of Vivek and Susan Bakshi proves.
“Susan and Viv said, ‘We really want to retain the old, cottage style’ … so when we went out to gain support from the neighbours,” says Ms. Schafrick as she looks over at her clients, “you were saying that a lot of people were quite pleased that it wasn’t getting demolished, that you were retaining the old character of the house.”
That character has much to do with the gable. Stroll the streets tucked between Yonge Street and Mount Pleasant Road near Eglinton Avenue, and there are side-gables, front-gables, dormer-gables, and even tiny little gables on top of the free libraries on front lawns.
The problem, says Ms. Bakshi, who grew up in North Toronto, is that the three-bedroom house wasn’t large enough when their family of three became a family of five. Their first thought was to transform the un-insulated attic into a bedroom. But would there also be enough room for another bathroom? And what about storage? When these architects toured the space, hunched over, all agreed it just wouldn’t work.
“So off the roof went,” Ms. Schafrick says with a smile. “And we really just created a new roof, but carefully inserted within the old, original gable.”
Viewed from the side – which is easy since the house sits on a corner lot – the gable is still king: the boxy addition pokes out, rather symmetrically, from either side of the gable’s peak. And although the addition becomes more dominant, visually, when viewed from the front or rear, that it is clad in black steel helps push it into the background … plus it sports its own gable to keep the street’s rhythm intact.
Inside, that new gable provides a more interesting, trapezoidal shape for the tall windows in the cozy bedrooms, or the rich, creamy-white bathroom; a bathroom that sports not only the requisite egg-shaped soaker tub, but also quirky hand-made, colourful Mexican sinks and some fine welding work from the Bakshi’s oldest son, Jack. And speaking of do-if-yourself projects, the couple built a Japanese-style screen for the bathroom window to celebrate their years living in Tokyo (Mr. Bakshi is from London, England, but his work took them there).
A window at the rear of the addition took inspiration from a 1970s window at the front of the home, which is now clad in shou sugi ban (charred wood siding which originated in Japan). To explain: forty-five or more years ago, an architect had owned this home and he had enclosed the front porch to create his studio. After installing a massive, commercial window he’d taken home from a jobsite, he installed a secondary window on a portion of wall that he angled outward – think of door swung partially open – to provide an edited, more private view while seated at his drafting board. To honour that architectural move, Ms. Schafrick and Mr. Grant pulled a window inward in the third-floor’s home office.
“Let’s do sort of a push, like a force that goes through the house,” Ms. Schafrick says. “So it’s sort of the reverse, the yin and yang.”
It also provides a little spot for birds to take a rest.
“It’s like being in a tree house,” says Ms. Bakshi, now viewing the large tree from the master bedroom window, which faces the street. “No one can see us, and every morning the birds come in [to the tree], we get, like, 10 different species … it is just lovely.”
Birds, as well as squirrels, are easily spotted from the new kitchen. Here, in what was once two small rooms, a repositioned back door is made up of mostly glass, and a long window replaces a good chunk of the backsplash, which, incidentally, now features groovy, starburst tile. These architects designed sexy banquette seating to cradle the mid-century modern dining set, local shop Irpinia Kitchens did the millwork, and Knotty’s Woodwork in Mississauga provided the oiled, American walnut countertops.
“We didn’t realize how much we like wood until we started this,” Ms. Bakshi says. Speaking of wood, the new, open-tread staircase to the third floor is both sculptural and practical, as it allows light to rain down onto the generous landing and hallway.
Overall, Attic House (as these architects inc. have billed it) should be a lesson to other tightrope walkers as to how to provide more space in a way that doesn’t overpower the rest of the neighbourhood. It shows reverence for old architectural styles without being handcuffed by them. It shows, finally, that these architects are very good architects indeed.
“Gina did a fabulous job interpreting what we wanted,” Ms. Bakshi says with a smile. “People always ask, ‘What would you do differently’ … and, honestly, I can’t think of anything.”
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