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From the Ground Up

A wall runs through it

The main-floor design of the home resembles an upside down ‘L’, with the kitchen, pictured here in a rendering, situated at the elbow.

A relook at architectural drawings of the Crowder-Thomas house raises a host of design questions and issues

As with most custom residential projects these days, Tory Crowder and Shawn Thomas wanted an open-concept home.

Consequently, the main-floor design they've selected for the 2,700-square-foot dwelling they're building in an older Etobicoke enclave resembles an upside-down "L": One arm, the family room, opens to the backyard; the other, the dining room, faces the street; and a spacious island-centred kitchen is situated at the elbow, with visibility to both spaces.

But when the couple's cabinet contractors, Mike and Aileen Brown, a husband-and-wife team who run Paragon Kitchens in Guelph, began looking at the architectural drawings a few months ago, they noticed something curious: a three-metre stretch of wall standing at one side of the dining room, creating a short hall between the home's main entrance and the kitchen. "I kept thinking, 'What is this wall doing here?'" Ms Brown said. "I had a sneaking suspicion it was just a hallway."

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So the Browns – who will be installing black, matte laminate cabinets designed by Miralis, a Quebec supplier – put the question to Ms. Crowder, a freelance publicist, and Mr. Thomas, a wealth manager. Mr. Brown recalls: "They kind of looked at each other and said, 'Why is it there?'"

Top: A rendering of the dining room and kitchen, with the wall.
Bottom: A rendering of the dining room and kitchen,without the wall.

After determining that the wall wasn't holding up anything or disguising pipes or ducts, they all realized its main purpose in life would be to conceal the door to the main-floor powder room, which would have otherwise opened, rather awkwardly, into the dining room.

Based on their own experiences, the Browns knew removing that bit of orphaned wall would create a cascading series of moves and tough decisions. It's a big question, Ms. Crowder admitted recently as she stood in the half-finished house, surveying those mysterious studs. "Do we take the wall down or do we leave it up?"

She wanted it removed, while Mr. Thomas felt it should stay. Have they come to a resolution? "I'm not sure I know the answer at this point," Mr. Thomas admitted.

Ms. Crowder explained that moving the wall would entail shifting the location of the door to the powder room. One solution their general contractor has proposed: moving the door to the opposite wall of the power room, so it opens onto a landing on the stairs leading into the basement and the garage. But that change would also involve lowering the floor of the powder room, reinstalling the pipes and reconfiguring the basement storage space directly underneath.

Still, entering the powder room from the other side made sense logistically, Ms. Crowder mused, and would create a larger dining room. But it also meant that the wall that originally had the door that needed concealing could now be repurposed for the couple's most prized piece of art – a lively streetscape of New York by the Quebec painter Patrick Kinn. "It's a pretty big piece," she added.

Homeowner Shawn Thomas, left, speaking with the contractor. Tory Crowder

Mr. Thomas was less convinced. When he discovered the cost of removing the wall and making the ensuing changes – $4,000, on top of an already ballooning project budget – he felt a bit balky. It would have been better to be having the conversation much earlier in the design process, he said. "I'm at the point where, if I didn't see a huge benefit from [removing the wall], why incur the expense?"

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He also raised another non-financial concern, about privacy. When they set out to build the house a few years ago, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Crowder agreed they wanted a rigorously modernist look, which meant lots of clean lines and plenty of transparency. Consequently, there are very large windows facing both front and back, as well as a main entrance and door that is going to be mainly glass.

Ms. Crowder wanted to maximize visibility from the street, including vistas of the staircase and the kitchen, with its jet-black cabinets.

For Mr. Thomas, that contentious wall, which was to run parallel to the lot, would have blocked some of the view between the front porch and the home's interior zones – a bit of obstruction with which he didn't have a problem. "It's already pretty public," Mr. Thomas said. "It's a balance between wanting a lot of natural light, which is a good thing, with having some degree of privacy."

"It's a very important point that gets brought up all the time when we take down walls," said Ms. Brown, who added that in open-concept homes, families often have conflicted views about privacy. Parents may want to be able to keep an eye on the kids from the vantage point of a kitchen-cum-command post, but also want a place to which to retreat, such as a den or a home office.

For the time being, Ms. Crowder and Mr. Thomas have found themselves on opposite sides of that stubby bit of wall. One point, however, is certain: They need to decide very soon, because it will be next to impossible to fix these problems later.

Globe Real Estate is following the construction of a new 2700-square-foot home in an Etobicoke neighbourhood that's become, like many Toronto residential enclaves, a hotbed of demolition and rebuilding activity. The first three instalments can be found here:

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Installment 1: Out with the old, in with the framing

Installment 2: Raise the flat roof

Installment 3: Everything hits at once

Editor's note: The original print and online versions of this story attributed the kitchen cabinets to the wrong manufacturer. This online version has been corrected.

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