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The Architourist

The new Christie Street façade of the L-shaped Elgin Picture & Frame building.

In a city the size of Toronto, we need to find ways to create houses from raw, forgotten real estate

Michelangelo once said that "every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it."

In a city the size of Toronto – with development pressures greater than anywhere but New York – we'd all do well to apply those words to the search for habitable space. Increasingly, we need to find ways to carve new homes from raw, forgotten real estate. While the towering high-rise and the tidy bay-and-gable will always have a place, it's instructive to learn from those who have found another way.

Meet real estate sculptors David Bain and Katy Bell.

Elgin Picture & Frame’s Dupont Street-facing storefront.

A few years before Mr. Bain took over his father's successful framing business, Elgin Picture & Frame, the decision was made to purchase the attractive, mid-1940s building at Dupont and Christie Streets it was housed in. Sneaking in just before the market went from bonfire to inferno, the father-and-son duo paid $675,000 in 2004.

"I'm sure by 2008 someone would've swooped in and bought the thing and it wouldn't be here any more," Mr. Bain says.

The grey cinder block Christie Street façade, prior to redevelopment.

If that seems expensive for a dozen years ago, consider the size: an L-shaped, two-storey building, it wraps around Charles John Gibson's 1915 Merchants Bank building (now Bank of Montreal) to pop out a second façade beside the very traditional front-porch houses of Christie Street. Of course, back in 2004, that façade was an unattractive, grey cinder-block affair with two yawning garage doors – one at ground level, one at shipping level – and warning signs reading "Loading Zone Only" and "No Parking in Driveway."

But Mr. Bain, a rental apartment dweller, began to sharpen his chisel, as it were: "Ten years ago, I was thinking about this [project], so I gradually moved anything we were using in this space – which wasn't actually very much – and condensed the work area." With the glass cutter and the "old dusty mounting crap" moved out, Solares Architecture was called in to have a look.

And they liked what they saw. "We really feel that this is the kind of density that the city needs," architect Melodie Coneybeare says. "I think it's 3,000 square feet – so it's not a 600-square-foot condo – it is very comfortable, and it's using something that was already here."

The second-floor ‘family lounge.’

Of course, like many great works of art, this new home took a number of years to complete. At one point, Mr. Bain replaced one of the three second-storey windows with a door to nowhere for "motivation." It didn't make it into the final design. While Mr. Bain was "prepared for" the "huge fees" associated with converting a commercial space to residential, he admits with a laugh that "it slowed me down, off the bat."

The underpinning took a year. The fire separation between new home and existing business was more complex than anyone had anticipated. After some construction had been done, a lack of funds meant Mr. Bain had to wait for the framing business to generate more.

And then there were the design challenges. At ground level, the building was essentially a giant garage door leading to a cavernous space. "I think one of the challenges we struggled with for a while was the entrance," Ms. Coneybeare admits. Such as: How small a garage could they get away with? Where would the stair go? Where on the second floor would it deposit people? How big should the foyer be?

The kitchen takes pride of place on the second floor.

Today, the various stonewalls and challenges have dissolved into a happy discussion around the big butcher-block kitchen island that takes pride of place on the second floor. Mr. Bain, Ms. Bell and Ms. Coneybeare are contemplating the smooth drywall of the 10-foot ceilings overhead and remembering early design drafts that called for an industrial look of raw joists and exposed duct work; since that's well represented in the framing shop where Mr. Bain spends his days, it just wasn't necessary in here.

With the couple's two children making a blessed racket in the "family lounge" on the third floor, they're also discussing the placement of bedrooms: kids on the second floor and the parents on the Solares-designed third. After draining glasses of sparkling rosé, the trio walk up the wide stair to inspect the lounge's sliding doors that will, one day, lead to a sprawling roof deck with a commanding view of the former Ford Motor Co. building across the street (built in 1914, it had a Model T showroom on the main floor, assembly areas above, a paint shop on the top floor and a test-track on the roof; in 1948 it became the Planters Peanuts building).

A living space in the residential section of the building.

When Ms. Coneybeare peeks into the master bath, she gasps at the sight of the iridescent, sparkly tile the couple has chosen. "When the light hits it, it looks like the ocean," Ms. Bell says.

Of course, with Solares Architecture involved, there is sustainable substance behind the sparkles. The home is heated via radiant floors on all three levels, there are energy recovery ventilators, windows are fibreglass and interior finishes were chosen for their green-ness.

While the couple say the total cost of this residential sculpture came in at about half a million dollars, they're pretty sure the picture-perfect high ceilings, deep windowsills and family-friendly, open-concept floor plans they've achieved wouldn't be available at that price-point elsewhere.

"Dollar for dollar, we'd never get a house like this," Mr. Bain says.