A no-holds-barred reno
The owners of this semi-detached home 'totally went for it' with a complete renovation
In 1952, when my mother arrived from New Brunswick and laid eyes on her first Toronto semi-detached, she thought: "Now who on earth would want to live in half a house?" That semi was likely in Leslieville, where she rented her first bedsit, and while it's true the clashing shingles, dual paint schemes and different front doors would have been jarring to the eye, had she come here a half-century before it would have been a very different story.
As architect Gloria Apostolou of Post Architecture points out, semis in Toronto – and in their birthplace, Britain – were designed to perform a trompe l'oeil: two small homes, combined, would come across as a single and very substantial detached home by sharing materials and hiding their individual front doors at the sides. "So that, when they'd send pictures back to England to say 'this is our house,' [the relatives] would think it's one house," she laughs.
Which brings us to "Shadow House" in the Keele and Annette area. What started off as a pair of identical twins just a few years ago has now morphed into two homes with two very different personalities. At left is a whiter, bulkier home boasting a second-floor sunroom, while, at right, the leaner and meaner Shadow House, owned by Andrea Payne and Kate Grzegorczyk, looks to be in perpetual shade: the sunroom is gone, the window frames are black, and even the short staircase to the front porch is tucked back a few inches from that of its neighbour.
"I think the fun thing with semis is to make them look different instead of matchy-matchy," Ms. Apostolou says.
The idea to intentionally throw shade on Shadow House came about when it was discovered that the second-floor sunroom – which Ms. Payne and Ms. Grzegorczyk wanted to keep as part of their master bedroom – could not be saved. "It was water-damaged," Ms. Apostolou explains, "and the joists holding it were two-by-fours, so not enough, really, to support it." Once it was removed, it seemed natural to allow her client's portion of the semi to subjugate itself, at least visually.
Inside the house, however, there's no subjugation at all, since everything is completely new. Early on, the homeowners had planned a staged renovation beginning with the ground floor, "but after opening up the walls and realizing the extent of the work that needed to be done on the structure, electrical, plumbing and HVAC," they decided to "dip into some extra funds" to carry out a gut reno of all three floors. They'd also decided to accept Ms. Apostolou's "Plan B" option, which expanded the third-floor living space by adding a large dormer with a walkout deck (the architect says she always gives her clients Plan A, which includes all they've asked for, but also hits them with a Plan B, which tackles the "spaces and volumes in ways they hadn't imagined.")
Even from the home's small foyer, it's evident this was the right decision: By tackling the entire renovation/reconstruction at once, a visual unity delights the eye, whether it falls upon small, decorative pieces such as the all-black, Charles Eames-designed coat rack; upon big infrastructure, such as the long, black-painted poplar staircase landing with built-in shoe storage; or, in the distance, the chunky, black-framed sliding door to the backyard.
And while Ms. Apostolou's palette of black, grey and white dominates, three things offer relief: The flooring is a richly textured, honey-coloured wood; beside the dining table is a faux-exposed brick feature that blends into a deeply-silled window (which offers a view of a brick wall a few feet away) on a wall that hides ductwork and the plumbing stack; and the gorgeous, white-powder-coated, perforated screen that encloses the stairwell creates wall shadows that are sublime.
Those custom-made, perforated screens carry all the way up to the third floor, by the way, and while Ms. Payne and Ms. Grzegorczyk would rather not reveal the total cost of their renovation, they do divulge the black-and-white stair cost a cool $46,000. Of course, should any guest open the door to the tiny, first-floor powder room to realize the backside of the stair's treads and risers form a folded-plate ceiling above his or her head, that cost becomes immediately justified.
"They just totally went for it," Ms. Apostolou says of her "fantastic" clients.
In the narrow kitchen, dollars have been saved and visual clutter removed by hacking an IKEA kitchen to support an in-line blower over the stove. In the basement, further savings were achieved by renovating only the front portion to include a dog shower for Iggy, who often comes home with muddy paws.
On the second floor, a few design decisions give the house a decidedly retail/commercial feel. A small section of old third-floor joists have been left exposed in the corridor – "I didn't want it to be a boring hallway" – and big hexagonal tiles from the master bath spill out into the bedroom in seemingly random fashion to blur the distinction between the two rooms. "I love office aesthetic, I love commercial aesthetic," says Ms. Apostolou, who worked with Ned Baldwin, one of the CN Tower's chief designers, for a decade before striking out on her own with Post Architecture in 2012. "I love crossing those lines, [but] I strictly do houses."
Almost two years on, with the renovation dust settled and "memories of being displaced" fading, Ms. Payne and Ms. Grzegorczyk e-mailed to say that "we love coming home to our house every single day."
And there's nothing half-baked about that sentiment.