Call this Eric and Angela Ho’s “What Condo Living Has Taught Us.”
After living in a multilevel penthouse at Bathurst and Wellington streets in Toronto for 15 years, a set of hard-and-fast rules shimmered to life when it came time to build a house on a lot they already owned.
“This was really a way to combine [the] good stuff from condos and the good stuff from ground-level living, and see if we could eliminate some of the bad stuff, [such as] mowing the lawn,” Mr. Ho says with a laugh. The skyline of the city – from Yonge and Bloor all the way to the financial district – twinkles over his right shoulder; a few paces away is a sculptural stair that transports the couple to a sprawling, fourth-floor roof deck. The curious thing is that we’re sitting at the Ho’s generous kitchen island … on the third floor.
In short, this black-bricked is an upside-down house. Bucking convention, bedrooms are on the floor below and the ground floor contains a small office and a king-sized mudroom, where dirty boots lining the wall contrast with clean lounge furniture. A difficult lot dictated there could be no basement (the slab sits on helical piles), and an elevator connects all four levels of this Trinity-Bellwoods dwelling together.
But the elevator isn’t for aging-in-place, stresses Mr. Ho – “If we get to the stage where we need an elevator to get around, I’ll just move to a one-floor [house] rather than trying to hang on,” he says matter-of-factly – it’s so warm-weather guests can enter the mudroom and be whisked right up to the patio-action.
“That’s another thing we learned from condo living: the outdoor area doesn’t have to be ground level.”
As we walk with architect Joe Knight, an affable English transplant who founded blackLAB architects seven years ago, the condo-teachings continue. To wit: Curtains aren’t necessary when one’s living room is high up off the ground, since everyone else on the street has bedrooms up here; floor-to-ceiling windows make furniture placement impossible, so waist-height walls have been added; and placing one’s kitchen one short flight from the outdoor deck sure beats condo-dwellers who are forced to truck their steaks and barbecue tongs long distances.
“I think what we were after was to do a compact, modern, urban home right in the middle of the city,” offers Mr. Ho. “It’s worked out really well.”
It almost didn’t work out this way at all. The original plan was to do a gut-reno to the existing house on the couple’s abnormally long lot – which stretches between a main downtown thoroughfare and a much quieter, residential street – to get it ready for them to move in and sell the other half of the lot after it was subdivided. To get permission to divide, however, the Hos needed to attach drawings of a “placeholder” building for the new lot (the one that would now face the quieter street) to their application. Since they knew of Mr. Knight’s work through friends who’d built a residence/gallery, they called on blackLAB.
Ironically, as Mr. Knight met with the Hos at their condo to ask what sorts of things to put into the placeholder, the couple became increasingly interested in the possibilities of the never-to-be-built building … so they decided to build it. And, says Mr. Knight, they took the opportunity to smooth the transition between the existing, tall, faux-historical townhouse complex to the north and the one-storey home to the south: “So it’s an interesting piece of property because we’ve sort of bridged the gap between what is very typical housing down the rest of the street,” he explains, adding that the city was also on board with the approach. “They saw a lot that was basically sitting there doing nothing, and understood the need to fill it and densify a little bit.”
“It’s a gentle density,” Mr. Ho adds. “It’s not like we’re throwing up a 60-storey here.”
As it turns out, the Hos think about urban context and land use a great deal; back at their condo, as development pressure increased, they increased their participation in local advocacy groups and got to know then-councillor Adam Vaughan in the process. When it came time to design this house, Mr. Ho would often send Mr. Knight’s drawings back with sketches and notations.
“You’re much more interested in this building and what it means – not just to you but to the neighbourhood – than, I’d say, 90 per cent of our clients,” Mr. Knight says of Mr. Ho. “Some people feel like they don’t want to tread on the toes of the architect.”
Perhaps it’s because Mr. Ho’s arrival in Canada five decades ago coincided with the activist Woodstock generation; perhaps it’s because he and his wife are rare birds. Regardless, the dedication shows, inside and out. There is a linen-white freshness and consistency to each floor of this 2500 square-foot house. Lines are crisp and geometries are bold. The colour palette is limited, as are the materials. Nothing tires the eye. This, says Mr. Ho, was informed by another rule which dictated “practicality and easy maintainability, so you notice in the bathrooms and in the entrance hall it’s these grey, slate tiles [that are] easy-to-clean and hide the dirt.”
And the tiles aren’t from a super-expensive “Design District” showroom, either: “I don’t want to say this the wrong way,” starts Mr. Knight, glancing at Mr. Ho cautiously, “you’re not cheap, but you definitely economize where you can … we picked a tile for the wall, a tile for the floor and we used it everywhere.”
One look at those strong fibreglass windows, bold staircase, and the luscious, logical kitchen and it’s clear the Ho’s Rules for Living can teach all of us a thing or two.
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