The house in Queen Street West's Beaconsfield Village sits just up the street from the Drake Hotel and just down from a highly colourful nativity scene propped on a second-storey overhang. This is definitely a neighbourhood in transition, where sizable Victorian semis under extreme renovation abut others in various stages of decay.
But you cannot see the house from the road. You must first walk through a tall gate and along a path beside another Victorian semi. It is only then that the 2 1/2-storey structure with the mansard roof is revealed, its façade gazing placidly back at the bigger house over an intervening swath of grass.
Built in the 1880s, the old coach house adjoins the laneway that intersects its city block. A 100 years past the horse-and-buggy era, it underwent a sketchy remodelling that turned its 1,600 square feet into a dark but inhabitable space. Much more recently, a Toronto-based professional bought the coach house and its parent semi with the intention of renting apartments in the larger building and using the backyard place for entertainment-friendly living quarters. The architecture and design firm Creative Union Network was hired to not only bring everything up to code but create a cool hang for the owner.
It took three-plus years for the city planning commission to issue building permits, despite the fact that city services had already been extended to the "garage." In the meantime, the owner's personal circumstances changed. Creative Union's husband-and-wife team of Claudia Bader and Timothy Mitanidis were now charged with turning the space into a home for two adults and a young child.
Mr. Mitanidis says the city and neighbourhood groups were "very supportive" of the laneway upgrade. Their biggest hurdle was a heritage designation on the dilapidated structure, which meant that no extra square footage or height could be added to the building's envelope. Faced with a low-slung, seven-foot ceiling in the main floor, the design pair decided to dig down a full foot to make a sunken entryway that leads into a galley kitchen. Here, a concrete surround and counter in graphite grey plays yin to the yang of a white Corian island topped with marble. White-plastered rafter joists above offer additional headroom, while subtly hinting at the building's actual age. Underfoot lies a light grey concrete floor warmed by radiant heat.
From the kitchen, the space opens up dramatically onto a living area where two floors have been melded into one atrium-like space. Its 18-foot-tall walls are lit on three sides by a beautifully balanced composition of oversized operable windows, a skylight, and descending light from a large wall-break in the upstairs master suite. The latter boasts a tempered-glass Juliet balcony, as well as one of the home's many sliding pocket doors that can be closed for privacy whenever necessary.
Creative Union custom-made almost all the household furnishings, to fulfill the client's request for maximum storage capacity. Side tables, the master bed platform, even the small steps leading to a daybed and rooftop patio in the upstairs child's bedroom have been pressed into service as containers for drawers. The living room's sectional sofa can do double duty as a guest bed – or two, if you roll out the trundle bed stowed underneath. The only standalone furniture are two pieces the client couldn't bear to part with: an antique Quebec cupboard and armoire, both painted in faded green, both incidentally speaking to the home's heritage status. Mr. Mitanidis and Ms. Bader even built a specially lit niche beside the back staircase to highlight the armoire and add illumination to one of the few spots in the house that isn't serviced by an outside light source.
The narrow stair made from white oak is, by itself, one of the home's highlights. Its handrail contains an LED strip embedded along its length – impalpable to the hand but capable of washing the wall with just enough light to allow a person to navigate at night from bedroom to kitchen with no further assistance. Directly overhead, the underside of the upper half-storey stairway mirrors the zig-zag rise of the steps beneath, becoming a sculptural entity in its own right, rather than merely a way from points A to B. It is best sighted framed frozen in mid-air through the pocket door opening of the master bedroom. Another frame, a large window on the upstairs landing, is perfectly situated to capture all the graffitied resplendence of a rotting garage across the lane.
These compositions, seemingly accidental, were actually carefully thought out by the design team, and add their own artistic share to the owner's collection of contemporary paintings and sketches, vintage tin toys and folk art.
Look more closely at the window and you discover a small LED strip recessed in a reveal beside it, there to heighten and brighten available natural light. Similar discoveries can be made all over the house – light strips positioned over the master bedroom's front-facing window; again, in the walk-in closet's full-length mirror and set into the vanity mirror in the ensuite bathroom. And again, against the closet's six-foot slash of glass window overlooking the downstairs atrium. These deftly hidden diffused lights extend the space and negate much of the need for overhead pots and wall sconces, leaving the overall impression of a tidy, tranquil setting.
Thematically, too, whether they conceal a light or not, the reveals incised into various parts of the house – on the reverse risers of the upper staircase, for example, or on the master bed's custom headboard – become connecting lines that pull the entire place together. Even the reveals of the kitchen cupboards are perfectly aligned to the width of the rafter joists running above.
One could say that Beaconsfield Village's Laneway House is in itself a revelation – a hidden gem tucked into a tiny corner of this city, accessible only for the enjoyment of a very select few.